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UIS ends contract with DCFS for training investigators

The simulation lab at UIS.

Update Aug. 11: This story has been updated to include reaction from various stakeholders after it was initially published.

The University of Illinois Springfield has elected to discontinue its contract with the state’s Department of Children and Family Services to offer simulation training for DCFS investigators in a house on campus.

The university decided against renewal of the agreement because the state had not followed its best-practice recommendation that simulation training be included throughout a five-week course for new DCFS investigators, said Dr. Betsy Goulet, who founded and directs the simulation lab at UIS and is herself a former DCFS investigator.

The agency's current training program for new investigators consists of four weeks primarily in a classroom, followed by a week of learning in the field, wrapped up with a final week of simulation training.

”We really think that we could do a much better job if we had them over the course of their foundation training, and we could intersperse the classroom content with the experiences in the SIM lab with different environments and different scenarios,” Goulet said.

But DCFS on Thursday pushed back on Goulet's claim that the contract was ended based on the agency's refusal to change its training protocol.

"These allegations are both wrong and ridiculous, and they denigrate the hard work that has gone into improving and expanding training," DCFS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said in a statement.

McCaffrey claimed the conflict actually stemmed from UIS' objection to DCFS' plan to allow other universities across Illinois to provide simulation training. UIS allegedly had proposed it be the sole provider for that training.

"Rather than accepting this demand, DCFS opted to continue to invest in a multi-site, multi-university program," McCaffrey said.

DCFS pointed to two new simulation labs opened this year: one on the campus of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb and the other at a DCFS site on Chicago's south side, which is run in collaboration with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's School of Social Work.

A third simulation lab will open in early 2023 on Southern Illinois University's Carbondale campus, while DCFS is in the beginning stages of building a fourth lab in Springfield, located on DCFS property and run entirely by agency staff. The agency cited the growth in investment in simulation training in the last several years, from $320,000 in fiscal year 2018 to $2.3 million in the current fiscal year.

UIS has trained more than 1,000 DCFS investigators since the program began in 2016. In the fiscal year that ended in June, the agency's simulation training contract with UIS was worth nearly $700,000. The lab trained 87 new investigators during that time period.

Gov. JB Pritzker on Thursday declined to directly address the question of whether DCFS' investigator trainees spend adequate time in the simulators, instead painting UIS as a bad faith negotiator with his administration.

"The fact is that UIS wanted us to put every single one of those simulation programs at UIS, and the truth is we need them all over the state," Pritzker said at a brief media availability on the state fairgrounds. "We have DCFS workers who need to get trained all over the state."

But without using UIS' simulation training lab, new DCFS investigator simulation training is entirely concentrated in the northern part of the state. While UIS contracts with other clients for child welfare simulation training, the groundbreaking simulation lab likely won't partner with DCFS again.

After NPR Illinois pointed out that terminating DCFS' use of UIS' simulation lab created the type of geographical disparity the governor had just cited as a top concern, Pritzker on Thursday pivoted to another issue he said ultimately ended DCFS' relationship with UIS' simulation lab.

“They don't have equity built into their program," Pritzker said . "It's something that they've been ordered to do and haven't done and we don't support that.” 

DCFS said UIS was on a "corrective action plan, including for their failures to hire a pipeline of diverse staff for the actual simulations," which McCaffrey cited as another reason for DCFS moving forward with plans to open its own training lab.

State Rep. Sue Scherer (D-Decatur), who has repeatedly called for reforms at DCFS, said Thursday that she's concerned about the claims raised by both parties.

“That's a serious thing if they're not keeping their minority numbers the way they need to be," Scherer said. "And yet…I want [the lab] to be there…We need more training in these simulator situations."

Scherer has sponsored legislation in reaction to a high-profile child death in her district 2019 and the murder of DCFS investigator Deidre Silas earlier this year. Silas was stabbed to death in January while on a home visit in Thayer, 20 miles south of Springfield. She was the second DCFS caseworker to die after being attacked on the job in recent years.

Goulet could not be reached for follow-up on Thursday, but in an earlier interview with NPR Illinois, she said her main concern was about the frequency of simulation lab time in new DCFS investigator training.

“It is critically important that they feel confident about child protection, about the protocols, about the procedures, and about engaging with families in crisis,” she said.

Goulet said that after being immersed in the simulation, “[New investigators] have a whole different idea of what it's like to come into somebody's home and ask difficult questions. I mean, they have to ask parents to take a baby's clothing off. So they can, you know, see where there might be...marks or bruises."

"That's hard to do. As a perfect stranger, you'd you come in and say, 'Well, I need you to take a baby's clothes off,'" Goulet continued. "Imagine the stress that comes with doing that...And so we train them to have those really challenging hard conversations, but we don't give them enough time to practice. And that's the frustration."

A previous version of this story misstated where the other DCFS investigator simulation training labs are currently in operation. It has been corrected.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
Hannah covers state government and politics for Capitol News Illinois. She's been dedicated to the statehouse beat since interning at NPR Illinois in 2014, with subsequent stops at WILL-AM/FM, Law360, Capitol Fax and The Daily Line before returning to NPR Illinois in 2020 and moving to CNI in 2023.