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DCFS undercounted deaths from abuse, neglect over five years

Denise Gonzales acting director Department Children Family Services testifies before Illinois Senate Human Services' Subcommittee Tuesday Chicago. | AP photo

Denise Gonzales, acting director of the Department of Children and Family Services, testifies before the Illinois Senate Human Services' Subcommittee Tuesday in Chicago. | AP photo

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CHART: Child deaths in Illinois
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Updated: January 12, 2014 6:23AM

The number of children who died from abuse or neglect over the past five years in Illinois is higher than the state’s child-welfare agency has reported, according to new figures from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

The number of deaths in that time is 455, DCFS officials said — which is 11 more than the agency previously counted.

DCFS officials blamed errors in “the department’s tracking and reporting system,” including counting as a single death some cases in which more than one child died.

Acting DCFS boss Denise Gonzales ordered an audit of the death statistics on Nov. 17, after an investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ found that more children are dying from abuse and neglect statewide, with a growing number of those deaths occurring despite the child-welfare system’s involvement in investigating or monitoring those children.

The department’s new analysis — released after an Illinois Senate hearing Tuesday in Chicago — concurred with the news organizations’ finding that the number of children who died within a year of having contact with the agency more than doubled between 2010 and 2011. There were 15 such deaths in the year ending June 30, 2010, compared to 34 in the year ending June 30, 2011.

But the agency disagreed that the number of DCFS-involved deaths has continued to rise, saying the child-welfare system had prior contact with 25 of the children who died in the year ending June, 30, 2012, and 27 in the year ending June 30, 2013. The Sun-Times and WBEZ counted 34 such deaths in 2012; death-case summaries were not available for 2013.

DCFS hasn’t made public such statistics in the past, instead releasing only the total number of child abuse and neglect death cases statewide.

At Tuesday’s hearing, though, Gonzales revealed those numbers have been wrong for each of the past five years.

“Prior to the recent review, the department’s tracking and reporting system recorded some children’s deaths more than once when the department received more than one hotline report about a single death or when more than one perpetrator was indicated for the death,” agency officials said. “Meanwhile, other single hotline reports included multiple victims who were inaccurately counted as one child.”

As a result, the total number of abuse and neglect deaths for the year ending June 30, 2013, was revised to 104, down seven from the previously reported total of 111. The findings of 11 death investigations for that year are still pending.

That’s the highest number of abuse and neglect deaths in Illinois in three decades.

DCFS officials attributed the increase to a policy change that now holds caretakers accountable if children die because they’re left in unsafe sleeping conditions. Such deaths often weren’t classified as neglect until late 2011, when DCFS began pressing its investigators to discipline parents who’d been educated about sleep safety or, because of alcohol or drug use, placed their children in unsafe sleep conditions. There have been 74 neglect deaths so far in 2013, compared to 30 abuse deaths.

Abuse and neglect deaths in 2010, 2011 and 2012 were 8 percent higher than what the agency previously reported.

Overall, DCFS undercounted the number of abuse and neglect deaths by 11 during the five-year period covering July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2013. Cook County — where DCFS worker caseloads are the highest — has seen the biggest increase in child abuse and neglect deaths.

“There’s no excuse for the DCFS system not being able to count accurately the number of children who died,” said Benjamin S. Wolf, an American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois attorney who monitors DCFS under a federal court order. “It’s something we’re going to look at more closely.”

Gonzales said she has met in recent weeks with DCFS Inspector General Denise Kane, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and Chicago police Supt. Garry McCarthy about improving communication between DCFS investigators and law enforcement — an area that Kane said, in the wake of the Sun-Times/WBEZ reports, has been a problem. Starting next year, there will be liaisons within DCFS and the Chicago Police Department to better share information, Gonzales said.

Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, let loose on Gonzales and her aides during the hearing.

“Every single one of you need to resign because we are not getting the outcomes that we need to protect our children,” Hunter told them. “I understand you have a difficult job, but you’re doing a lot of things wrong.”

Later, Hunter said, “I don’t trust anything that they’re saying right now.”

Chris Fusco is a Chicago Sun-Times staff reporter. Tony Arnold is a reporter for WBEZ.

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