123 Children Under DCFS Supervision Died Last Year. How Can Illinois Do Better?

Jan 21, 2020

Five-year-old Jeremiah Wilson went for a swim at the pool on a summer afternoon last June. 

Jeremiah's father had him and seven other kids aged 3 to 15 over for the day at the Brandywine Crossing Apartments in Central Peoria. 

A pool and clubhouse is the centerpiece of a horseshoe-shaped cluster of three-story apartment buildings accented by medieval brick turrets.

As the father was rounding up the kids for dinner, he asked Jeremiah's 9-year-old half-sibling to take Jeremiah to the clubhouse to wash up. 

He didn't come back. The boy's father started asking questions. The kids said Jeremiah was still in the clubhouse. A check turned up nothing. The apartment manager hadn't seen him. He called the boy's mother to see if she had picked him up. She hadn't. 

Police were called. Soon, a child approached a manager to ask why there was a "doll" at the bottom of the pool. A police officer dived in and scooped up Jeremiah. 

It was too late.

Not the first time

Jeremiah Wilson was pronounced dead by drowning a short time later at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center. The Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) found Jeremiah's father responsible for  his son's death by neglect and deemed him a "substantial risk" to his other children. 

This wasn't the first time something like this happened with Jeremiah. In June 2016, the then two-year-old was left alone in an unfenced backyard by his father's cousin. He was struck by a car headed down the nearby alley and left with a mild concussion and scrapes. 

DCFS blamed that incident on inadequate supervision, but said there wasn't enough evidence to prove that Jeremiah's cuts, bruises, welts, abrasions, and oral injuries were caused by neglect.

Two months later, Jeremiah's mother allegedly tried to run over his father in front of his workplace because he was unfaithful to their relationship. Jeremiah was improperly restrained in the back seat of the vehicle. 

She told officials later it was "a very stupid act," she regretted - especially with her child present. She was arrested, but never convicted. 

DCFS found Jeremiah's mother responsible for posing a substantial risk of physical injury to the health and welfare of her child by neglect in the August 2016 incident. 

One of many examples

Jeremiah's case was one of the 123 deaths of children involved with DCFS cited in the agency's Office of Inspector General 2020 annual report to the General Assembly. 

Wilson was not identified by name in the report, but sources familiar with his case confirmed the dates and details outlined by the inspector general are consistent with those circumstances. 

A breakdown of deaths of children involved with DCFS in fiscal year 2019 compiled by the DCFS Inspector General's Office.
Credit DCFS Inspector General's Office

"We, Illinois, must do better. We need to do more to support families early on, before they get into deep trouble. But when families are broken, we need to act decisively to protect children," wrote Meryl Paniak, the acting DCFS inspector general. 

The agency has faced mounting scrutiny in recent years as the deaths of children with whom the agency was involved have made national headlines. 

Paniak said that cases like that of 5-year-old AJ Freund of Crystal Lake have lessons to teach the agency in its mission to keep kids safe. 

"In Freund, investigators ignored the parents’ long history of addiction, the mother’s recent relapse, and the parents’ isolation of the children from caring relatives and day care providers," she wrote.

Freund was found buried in a shallow grave in 2018. His parents, Andrew Freund, Sr. and Joann Cunningham, are charged in his death. Cunningham has pleaded guilty, but Freund says he's not guilty. 

DCFS was involved numerous times with Freund before his death.

Paniak said she highlights missed opportunities to "strengthen viable families" in each of the 123 death cases. She also noted that when families are too broken to quickly repair, protecting kids must be the agency's top priority.

That alludes to issues at the agency's Intact Family Services division. A review of the division by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago identified several issues with the department, including problems in the supervisory food chain, high-risk case closures, and a culture of avoidance towards removing kids from their homes. 

The Chapin Hall report notes the number of child abuse or neglect victims has increased in Illinois every year since 2014. Their review made nine recommendations for change. 

The last several IG reports have noted high worker caseloads linked to a shortage of caseworkers to take on those investigations. 

The director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Marc D. Smith testifies before the House Appropriations-Human Services Committee Friday, April 26, 2019 in Chicago.
Credit (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

In an e-mailed statement, DCFS spokesman Jassen Strokosch said reform is something the agency and Gov. J.B. Pritzker are taking seriously.

"The FY20 budget allowed DCFS to hire 300 additional staff and more than 2,800 existing staff across the state have now received new training on child safety. The entire leadership of DCFS, including child protection and operations, have been completely restructured and in response to the Chapin Hall report intact family services has been restructured as well," he said. 

A new DCFS Training Center also opened last year. 

Is it enough?

Mitch Lifson with advocacy group Voices for Illinois Children said while there are a lot of competing needs jostling for a share of the state's limited pot of money, child welfare should be a priority.

"We all need to accept the fact that, if additional resources are needed, and there are a number of priorities in the state, and that we still have a large backlog of bills and a huge pension liability, that we need to find those resources necessary to provide to the agency to protect children," he said. 

Paniak made a number of recommendations, such as prioritizing callbacks to mandated reporters like law enforcement officers who tip off DCFS to suspected abuse through the agency's hotline. 

The inspector general report also includes a new section on children who remain in psychiatric care "beyond medical necessity." There were 308 such cases recorded in fiscal year 2019.

In this Tuesday, July 30, 2019 photo, Victor Lasko, State Wide Director of Workforce Development at Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, points to a bruise on a doll used for for training new child service investigators.
Credit (AP Photo/Amr Alfiky)

Paniak noted that keeping kids hospitalized beyond their required stay not only exacts a steep mental health toll on the children detained, but a financial one. Medicaid doesn't cover the care costs of children kept beyond the time they should be let out. 

She recommended more individualized care for kids in community-based placements, doing a better job of identifying hospitals with proven track records of stabilizing youth, and considering moving the child back to their prior placement after his or her treatment for an immediate crisis concludes. 

Paniak notes Chicago's Aunt Martha's runs an Interim Care Center with 33 beds for kids who no longer require hospitalization but still need help before a new long-term placement is considered. But she said many hospitals are reluctant to take on these cases because so many youth are left there beyond the medical necessity period. This leaves many kids with no halfway point for a transition back into normal life. 

Eight children involved with DCFS died in the Tri-County area between July 2018 and June 2019. Five of those deaths were classified as homicides.

DCFS Child Death Investigations by County
Credit DCFS Inspector General's Office

Mitch Lifson of the Voices for Illinois Children advocacy group said domestic violence, mental health, or substance abuse were factors the majority of the 24 reported homicide cases statewide. He argues addressing the deaths of children involved with DCFS not only involves tacking issues within the agency, but with human services as a whole. 

"Part of the picture of making sure that children are safe and protected is also making sure the services are there, not only for the children, but for the parents and guardians," Lifson said. 

Those same factors are also noted by Paniak, the acting DCFS inspector general. 

"No single policy change will hit every target needed to reduce the number of children suffering abuse and neglect, or improve the lives and well-being of those who caused the abuse/neglect, but...a package of the right policies might," she wrote. 

Strokosch, the DCFS spokesman, said there was a 5,000 case spike in investigations in the last fiscal year. 

"Overhauling the department and reversing long-standing problems in the child welfare system won’t happen overnight, but we are making dramatic improvements and we are deeply committed to getting this right," he said. 

A Pritzker administration spokeswoman contacted WCBU after this article's publication. 

"Neglected and abused children have been badly served in Illinois, and Governor Pritzker believes it’s our duty as a state to invest in the long-term transformation of DCFS to better serve our most vulnerable children," the spokeswoman said. "The devastating fact is that these vulnerable children were among the most defenseless victims of the previous administration’s budget impasse, which deeply hollowed out DCFS and the entire social services ecosystem that supports their families – such as mental health and substance abuse treatment. It’s imperative that those services must be rebuilt."

She also noted the current fiscal year's budget increased DCFS funding by $128 million. 

Click here to read the full IG report.