Keeping children away from harm and making sure they are part of a loving and safe home environment is a top priority for any federal or state government. Child welfare in Illinois is safeguarded by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (“DCFS”).
DCFS is in charge of investigating claims of abuse and, if necessary, removing children from unsafe environments. Because DCFS is tasked with such an important responsibility, it must be adequately funded. It must also be staffed with highly capable and vigilant guardians who will protect vulnerable children in need of care.
Financial and Budgetary Constraints
The budgetary resources for DCFS have always been an issue. The fiscal year begins on July 1st, and Illinois lawmakers are in a tough situation where they may need to make some drastic cuts to funding. It is possible that DCFS could face a 14 percent budget cut this year. This would be the equivalent of a loss of $87 million in state dollars alone. Factoring in federal dollars that are matched to state funding, it could go as high as a $100 million.
The practical result of a cut in funding could mean that DCFS may have to lay off as many as 300 employees of the total 2,600 on its staff. Much of the staff is comprised of social workers who investigate the child abuse and neglect cases. The obvious implications of these layoffs are enormous and alarming.
DCFS will have to reduce the number and type of services it provides. It also means that the length of time it takes to complete the investigations will be increased. If investigations are taking longer, that also means the time it takes to remove a child from foster care and place him or her in an adopted home will also increase.
A key component to combating child abuse and neglect is prevention, and DCFS awareness campaigns are generally the first piece that is cut out under budgetary constraints, since other programs are under strict court mandates.
In recent years, DCFS’ budget has been consistently reduced. These reductions in budget may end up creating more costs down the road. For example, foster care costs more to run than adoption.
Frequent Staff Changes
DCFS has a new Acting Director named Bobbie Gregg who had been serving as interim director for two months. DCFS has had four different chiefs since the start of November of last year. Gregg, a former federal prosecutor, promises more transparency and accountability in the department. One of her first tasks is to begin regularly publishing data on children who died from abuse or neglect who had previous contact with DCFS. The lack of consistent leadership and a consistent message and plan of action can severely jeopardize the functioning of DCFS.
Lessons Learned from Other Broken Systems
The Massachusetts' Child Welfare Department has been under attack as the Commissioner of the department, Olga Roche, recently stepped down amid the reports of the deaths of three children who were failed by the system.
This past month a four-week-old died. In the child's case, police told the Massachusetts DCFS in a fax that baby could be in danger, but no action was taken by the department. In the two other cases, a two-week-old baby whose family was being monitored by child welfare officials died, and a five-year-old, whose family was also being monitored, was also found dead.
The Illinois DCFS needs to learn from these horrific Massachusetts examples what the dire consequences are that funding and poor oversight can mean for the welfare of children.
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