SPRINGFIELD — The Department of Children and Family Services needs to reduce caseloads and take other steps after the “profoundly devastating” death of a 2-year-old Decatur girl whose family had been investigated by the agency before it closed the case, the agency’s interim director told a House committee Tuesday.
In the last two years, 98 children involved with DCFS have died, according to a recent report by the Office of the Inspector General.
Ta’Naja Barnes was found dead in her Decatur home in February, with her body wrapped in a urine-soaked blanket inside what officers said was a dirty, rodent-infested house, according to the Herald and Review. Police said Barnes was starved and frozen to death, and her mother and mother’s boyfriend have been charged with first-degree murder. Ta’naja and her brother had been placed in foster care by DCFS, before being returned to their mother’s care.
Debra Dyer-Webster, DCFS’ interim director, told the committee that losing a child who has had an interaction with the agency is “profoundly devastating.”
“It is something that never leaves you, and it shouldn’t,” she said. “In these cases, we have a responsibility to understand the full scope of what happened.”
In the wake of what Dyer-Webster called troubling findings in the report, she said DCFS plans on taking a number of short-term steps to improve its policies and practices.
This includes reducing caseloads, putting higher-risk cases back to DCFS from private agencies, and upgrading the agency’s technology.
“I believe these steps will make some much needed improvements in how DCFS operates, but over the long term, it’s clear that we have a lot more work to do,” she said.
Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, chair of the House Committee on Adoption and Child Welfare, which held the hearing, said Ta’Naja’s case was closed “in record time,” despite several aspects of it that “set off an alarm bell.”
“There were so many risk factors, from my perspective,” she said.
These factors include the fact that Ta’Naja’s mother’s boyfriend, who was not her biological parent, was in the home; there had been a second removal from the home; and that aftercare was not provided after Ta’Naja was returned to her mother’s house.
“I think the failure may be in what we try and use as factors to build a case that would make us worry again after a case is closed,” Feigenholtz said.
Feigenholtz said there should be some kind of indication, when looking up these cases on the computer, that these risk factors are there.
State Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, who is not a member of the committee but called the hearing, asked if caseworkers are notified that a child has been in and out of DCFS if the agency gets a call about a family.
Dyer-Webster said there is not.
“The history of the family’s involvement with DCFS is already on the computer,” she said. “The worker has to go and put that identifying information (in) to find it.”
Scherer also asked if DCFS requires parents to provide proof of immunizations when a child goes back to them.
“My thought is if they have to be seen by the doctor, that’s another mandatory reporter of two eyes on that child. They can be looking for bruises, they can be checking if they had their immunizations, they can be checking their weight to make sure they’ve had food as well,” Scherer said.
Dyer-Webster said once a child returns home to their family, there’s no law that requires the family to get immunizations for the child.
After the hearing, Scherer said she has two or three ideas for potential legislation.
″(For DCFS) there’s a lot of well, it’s suggested we do this, it’s recommended that you do this,” she said. “It needs to be required.”
Dyer-Webster said the provisions Gov. JB Pritzker made in his budget proposal would help. The governor said in his budget address that he would give DCFS additional funding for 126 more staff members, as well as money for an upgrade in the technology system. Dyer-Webster said some of the agency’s technology is 30 years old and “badly in need of an overhaul.”
“We know there is much more work to do before we are fully living up to our obligation to children and families,” Dyer-Webster said. “All of us at DCFS are committed to doing the work.”