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Deaths of kids involved with DCFS up 40% in FY22, a 20-year high

Capitol News Illinois

Child deaths involving the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services increased by 40 percent in the last fiscal year.

That's according to the annual report released last week by the DCFS Office of Inspector General. It identified 171 children with agency involvement who died in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2022. That's up from 122 in FY 2021, and the highest number of child deaths involving the agency recorded in at least two decades.

Charles Golbert, the Cook County Public Guardian and a longtime advocate for DCFS reforms, called the number of deaths "unacceptable."

"It's easy to get caught up in numbers and statistics and 40% more child deaths this year than last year. But these are real children. These are our children. These are children that Illinois and the state's responsible for," he said. "They're our future. They're our most important asset, and we owe them a whole lot better."

In a statement, DCFS spokesman William McCaffrey said the report covers the more than 425,000 children reached by the department through its work, noting that's 55% more than the agency saw a decade ago.

"Under this administration, the department has strived to meet this increased demand, including hiring 334 additional staff, expanding training and increasing resources for private agency partners. The death of any child is a profound tragedy and the department mourns every loss of life and always scrutinizes case information to understand where we can do better," he said.

The inspector general's report also dug deeper into what acting inspector general Ann McIntyre calls "a systemic pattern of child protection investigations in which there were significant delays in making initial contact with alleged child victims of abuse or neglect."

McCaffrey noted 37 of the 171 cases were determined to warrant a full investigation of DCFS involvement by the inspector general's office - a number he said is in line with previous years. He said seven of the deaths in the report involved child abuse, with natural causes and accidents accounting for larger proportions.

One of those cases involving allegations of child abuse was the March 2022 death of 8-year-old Navin Jones of Peoria. DCFS was involved with Jones' family several times both before and during his lifetime. His parents, Stephanie Jones and Brandon Walker, now face first degree murder charges in Peoria County.

Of the eleven children from Peoria County with prior DCFS involvement who died in the 2022 fiscal year, four were determined to be homicides. That's the second-highest homicide total by county, with only Cook County coming in higher with 20.

Tazewell County saw two deaths over the same period. One was determined to be a suicide; the other, accidental.

Between FY20 and FY22, the inspector general's office also identified 24 cases where it took investigators between 27 and 303 days to make an initial in-person contact with an alleged child victim after potential abuse or neglect was reported to the DCFS hotline.

"In these cases, the Department failed to fulfill an essential responsibility in protecting children," McIntyre wrote.

"If you go through and look at these cases individually, they're cases involving very serious physical abuse cases, involving sex abuse, and a number of cases where a child ended up dying. And it's just unacceptable," said Golbert. "This is a state agency that's charged with responsibility for protecting our children from abuse and neglect."

The issues facing DCFS aren't new. The office of inspector general was created in 1993 after the death of a three-year-old whose family had involvement with the department. Golbert notes the agency is still out of compliance with a 1991 federal consent decree creating mandates on investigator caseload ratios.

This year's OIG report includes 90 new recommendations for the department from 20 reports.

"Early prevention remains one of the most important ways to protect vulnerable children across the state of Illinois, and we look forward to building on the improvements highlighted in the report and implementing the OIG’s new recommendations with expediency," McCaffrey said.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.