SPRINGFIELD — Investigators with Illinois’ child welfare agency face overwhelming caseloads and feel pressured to quickly wrap up abuse investigations, according to testimony provided during a legislative hearing.
A panel of experts and lawmakers spoke Tuesday about issues at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, the Chicago Tribune reported. The hearing came after the newspaper highlighted four cases in which children died of beatings or starvations soon after the department closed investigations of mistreatment at their homes.
The department’s director, George Sheldon, said the newspaper’s reports propelled him to request the agency’s general counsel to review whether Illinois laws should be changed to allow the department to keep records of past unproven abuse allegations. The agency currently expunges and shreds files if it determines there is no credible evidence of abuse or neglect.
The department’s attorney said officials will also look over some cases in Will County following the death of Semaj Crosby. The toddler died last month in her Joliet Township home shortly after the agency closed neglect investigations.
During Tuesday’s hearing, recent failed investigations were detailed by Danielle Gomez, a supervising attorney for the Cook County Public Guardian’s Office. She said the agency didn’t interview key witnesses or gather critical evidence in some cases.
Gomez said the agency’s investigators told her staff they were “overwhelmed” by caseloads.
“They are sometimes in tears about the things they are unable to do, about the pressures on their caseloads,” Gomez said.
Sheldon defended the agency throughout the hearing, but said botched investigations sometimes led to children being harmed. In such cases, he said, his workers didn’t effectively communicate with each other or with outside agencies and private contractors.
“We’ve got to do a better job of coordination,” Sheldon said.
Heidi Dalenberg, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and cooperating counsel in a consent decree governing the department, said the agency isn’t conducting extensive investigations to ensure a child is safe.
“It is this kind of flailing about that is not helpful,” Dalenberg said.
Rep. Mary Flowers, a Democrat from Chicago, said she also was troubled by the newspaper’s account of the department’s new program, Blue Star, which offers overtime pay to Cook County investigators who can boost the percentage of cases they close within 14 days.
“Enough is enough,” Flowers said. “Our families are suffering.”
Flowers said the hearing is the first of several she plans to have through at least the summer.