Daily Herald opinion: Amid auditor's report on DCFS, we need stronger signs that leaders are working on problems

This editorial represents the consensus opinion of The Daily Herald Editorial Board.

Since December, four Illinois children have died after having contact with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

Nearly a year following enactment of a law ordering safety checks for children under state protection who are returned home, a state audit finds the checks have occurred in only three of 195 relevant cases.

That same audit finds that in 29 of 50 cases examined, the state had not conducted legally required aftercare services for foster children returned to their homes.

Meanwhile, the director of DCFS, the agency charged with protecting children in troubled situations, continues to collect contempt-of-court citations like illegal parking tickets. Director Marc Smith is up to 10 such citations so far.

Smith and other representatives of the Pritzker administration insist that the horror stories pouring out of DCFS stem from past neglect of the agency, and they're working to address them. Indeed, a Pritzker spokesman points out the governor's budget sets aside $250 million to bolster DCFS staffing and technology issues and he has boosted the DCFS budget by $340 million since taking office.

On paper, that sounds like at least a reasonable start. But in practice, the Illinois Auditor General's report issued last week only compounds the question of whether that leaders charged with protecting some of the state's most endangered children are working with a the sense of urgency the situation demands.

Ordinarily, an indictment such as the auditor general's new report would set off vigorous alarms. The responses last week included a mixture of apparently heartfelt expressions of sympathy for victims, defensive accountings of hiring and training efforts under way and, from insiders who deal regularly with DCFS, deepening frustration.

"I was expecting disaster, and it's even worse than disaster," Charles Golbert, Cook County Public Guardian, told the Chicago Tribune.

In addition to the failures to meet statutory obligations to document and monitor the conditions of abused and neglected children, the report says 20% of approved positions at DCFS remain unfilled and the agency lacks an accurate personnel database. Often, it says, medical information such as immunization records, physicals, dental exams and hearing screenings were found to be unreliable or missing.

It would be inaccurate to imply that government leaders, including DCFS's Smith, have been cavalier toward the report or the constant criticism of the agency's handling of its duties. A DCFS spokesman last week pointed to having trained "thousands of workers, expanded resources to support the child welfare system and addressed the many hiring and staffing challenges facing child welfare organizations." We have no doubt the agency and the governor's administration would concur with the observation that these issues cannot be addressed soon enough.

Yet, their language and tone still lack the intensity of purpose to instill confidence that they're committed to addressing this deep, chronic crisis forcefully enough to solve it as soon as possible. Yes, they've allocated money. Yes, they're initiating training. Yes, there are some hiring circumstances outside their control.

But how can it be that in spite of all this, one still has the impression that the priorities for an agency in crisis are being set by court order? And considering that, as a practical matter, court orders can involve only the most dire cases, what confidence can we have that DCFS is instituting changes needed to protect the tens of thousands of children under its watch?

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