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Report: DCFS So Focused On Keeping Families Together, Agency Often Puts Kids In Danger

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A report has found that it's so difficult to remove children from their parents' care, that many DCFS workers won't even recommend removal to prosecutors.

And, those workers actually have a financial incentive to close cases quickly.

Those are among several shocking findings in a study released overnight by the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall.

Governor JB Pritzker asked the university think-tank to review the agency back in March, after the death of 2-year-old Ja'hir Gibbons.  Gibbons died an hour after being brought to the hospital, covered in old and new bruises.  His family was actively being visited by a DCFS contracted caseworker, who allegedly lied about seeing the boy on the case report filed two days before his death.

"We will be adopting every recommendation in this report with as much expediency as possible," Pritzker said at a news conference on Wednesday.

"I'm committing the full force of this office to this work. This agency and the children under its care were neglected for years. That changes right now."

Pritzker also said that "there is nowhere in state government where [budget] cuts have done more damage" than at DCFS.

The report focuses on Intact Family Services, which provides in-house services to children allowed to remain in their parents' homes during or after an investigation.

The report found that there is an incentive for case mangers to close cases in under six months because the manager's "pay rate decreases" after that time.

It found that Intact, "provided little infrastructure support for incentivizing quality and monitoring performance.  Intact services payments are tiered and taper with decreasing expectations for frequency of contact with families."

Cook County public guardian Charles Golbert calls the arrangement dangerous. It's supported by data showing that Illinois has the lowest foster care entry rate in the country with roughly 12,000 children each year remaining in the home where there is a child abuse investigation.

"Agencies are financially harmed when they keep cases open for more than six months because the rate of pay decreases. That's a ridiculous, perverse, financial disincentive for agencies to protect children," Golbert said.

The report also found supervisory issues, information gaps and high risk case closures.

The report found that the agency is so focused on keeping families together and kids out of foster care, that it often puts those kids they're assigned to protect, in danger.

"There is a pervasive expectation that removals won't be upheld by the State's Attorney or the court," according to the study.  Communication problems were so rampant that Intact workers "often cannot access the investigator's notes or key features of a lengthy case history."

According to the report, people inside the agency admitted complex cases "may not be effectively and safely served by Intact," citing high turnover and case workers being "inundated with caseload pressures."

The study recommended nine ways to address the issues; which include refining protocol for closing cases, working with courts and state's attorneys to refine criteria for removal, redesigning assessment and child intake processes, and giving direct attention to cases at greatest risk of severe harm.

Governor Pritzker has already made changes at DCFS. In March, he named Marc D. Smith the new head of the agency. The agency will be reviewing 1,100 open investigations and adding 126 more caseworkers.

But, Smith has not come out strongly against the agency, rejecting the notion that there is a culture of avoiding having to remove children from their homes.

"I think that the culture has been safety. I think that people make decisions based on what they see," Smith said.

But critics and researchers see it differently.

"DCFS is number crunching to meet caseloads as opposed to doing assessments of families and of children, but even then they are not meeting caseload requirements that are required by law," Golbert said.

James McIntyre, the head of the Foster Care Alumni of America Illinois chapter, said his organization of former children in the system was not contacted during the course of the study.

"I lived first hand experience through the lack of follow-ups," McIntyre said.

On Wednesday, Gov. Pritzker said he's recommending an additional $75 million for DCFS to help hire 126 caseworkers.

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