Op Ed: Our Broken Child Welfare System Cannot be Fixed Without Systemic Change

The following guest editorial appeared in The Daily Line on August 25, and as the featured “Leading Voices” editorial on the House Republican Blog on September 1:

Joseph Wallace, Gizzell “Gizzy” Ford, Ja’hir Gibbons, Semaj Crosby, A.J. Freund. What do they have in common? All of them were murdered and before their deaths all of them were the subjects of investigation by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

Now add to that list Kerrigan “Kerri” Rutherford, age 6 from Montgomery, Illinois. Her mother and stepfather have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with her July 2nd death, which Kendall County authorities allege was the result of the couple having given Kerri enough of a prescription drug, olanzapine, to kill her.

As was reported in a Chicago Tribune story, DCFS had contact with Kerri and her family as far back as December 2015, following a report of alleged abuse or neglect, according to a DCFS spokesperson.

Every time a child under DCFS’ protection dies, we hear talk of reform, but nothing changes. Last year it was reported that 123 children died within a year of family contact with DCFS, and between July 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019, 24 of those deaths were homicides, 13 of which involved children 5 years old or younger. Thirty-seven deaths were ruled accidental, seven suicides, and twenty-one deaths of undetermined causes.

The current FY21 budget increases DCFS funding by $151.7 million. Last year the agency received an additional $80 million. DCFS officials said they would spend much of the additional funding on a 5% rate increase for private social services agencies that contract with DCFS and handle about 85% of the agency’s intact family and foster care cases, and would hire 301 more workers, including 71 more child protection investigators.

If we confine ourselves to looking at compensation and workload as the primary reason for what’s gone wrong with DCFS, we’ll completely overlook the culture that has been allowed to develop around the agency, which is at the heart of its problems. The time for half measures is over.

Our child welfare system is broken and cannot be fixed without systemic change. This is not an accusation against the many men and women who work for the agency and go far beyond their mandate to keep children out of harm’s way. They’re dealing with an impossible situation made worse by the piling of one mandate upon another, which has created a situation where the process is more important than the mission. It starts with the hotline, and extends to investigations and its coordination with law enforcement, Intact Family Services, lack of medical support, placement and on and on.

McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally wrote in a letter last October:

“[T]he primary responsibility for protecting children in a community should belong to the  community, not the State. Moreover, and in my opinion, the agents designated to protect children in a community should be primarily accountable to the community, not the State.”

The child welfare system will not work unless there is accountability at the local level, accountability to the community that’s being served. In 2019, I introduced A.J.’s Law (H.B. 4886), which would create a county-wide pilot program in McHenry County to replace the local office of DCFS with the McHenry County Children and Family Services Agency. It would be responsible for investigating instances of abuse and neglect in McHenry County, and would be responsible to the people of McHenry County.

I realize that changing an entire agency from a one-size-fits-all model to one where the buck stops at the County line will be a heavy lift, but it has to be done. AJ Freund, a little boy consigned to an anonymous grave alongside a back road, and all the other victims of abuse, deserve nothing less from us.