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Too many children died under DCFS director’s watch: Mitchell

Updated: December 18, 2013 6:46AM

It is shameful and shocking that more children in the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services are dying of child abuse and neglect.

Chicago Sun-Times reporters Chris Fusco and Monifa Thomas, and Tony Arnold, a reporter for WBEZ, report that abuse and neglect deaths in which the department has prior involvement more than doubled between fiscal years 2010 and 2011.

Child abuse and neglect deaths went from 15 to 34 during that period. Another 34 children died in fiscal year 2012 — 15 by abuse and 19 by neglect, the investigative team reported.

Yet the director of the DCFS, who announced Friday he will resign due to a cancer diagnosis, appeared to view the deaths as unavoidable.

“I think it’s real important to understand from a demographics standpoint that while any death is a horror, one out of 39,000 isn’t a bad error rate,” Richard H. Calica told the Sun-Times when he was interviewed for the special report.

“I think it’s unfair to judge a system by a tragedy and have tragedies drive public policy and the entire system, when certain tragedies, I’m sorry, are not preventable.”

These days Calica sounds more like a bureaucrat than the social worker who ran the Juvenile Protective Association for 33 years.

In 1996, Calica was so skeptical of a biological mother’s ability to remain drug free, even though there was evidence that the mother had turned her life around, he testified against her at a controversial fitness trial.

Tina Olison, the mother of Baby T, and a former drug user, was desperately trying to regain custody of her son from his foster parents, Anne and Ed Burke.

Calica testified that if Olison were allowed to regain custody — she might relapse into drug use and “abuse the children.”

The team of social workers at Juvenile Justice Protective Association, considered the leader in the child welfare field, also took a ridiculously hard line when it came to Olison.

In the end, a Kane County judge transferred guardianship of the boy from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to the Burkes while Olison was given four hours of visitation every other week.

So, it is even harder for me to understand how so many children slipped through the cracks on Calica’s watch.

In the year that ended on June 30, 2013, there were 111 child abuse and neglect death cases in Illinois, according to the Sun-Times analysis.

Cases include Gizzell Ford, 8. Her grandmother, Helen Ford, and father, Andre Ford, allegedly beat the girl to death. Joshua Summeries, 5 months, was dumped in the trash, allegedly by his mother’s boyfriend. Christopher Valdez, 4, also was allegedly beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend.

Instead of being rescued, these children were left in the care of heartless individuals who were later charged with their deaths.

In fairness to Calica, DCFS was in turmoil by the time he landed there in 2011.

Calica took the reins from Erwin McEwen after McEwen resigned from the agency under a cloud. The Office of the Executive Inspector General had alleged that a close friend of McEwen’s, Dr. George E. Smith, had engaged in “large-scale” grant fraud.

The Inspector General’s report found that “millions of dollars” in grant funds could not be substantiated, including DCFS money, and that McEwen “ignored red flags.”

So far, Smith has not been charged with any crimes, and McEwen moved on down the road to work as a consultant for the Nebraska Families Collaborative. The only people who have paid for this crime so far are the children who might have been saved had the funds been used properly.

In announcing Calica’s resignation, Gov. Pat Quinn praised him for reducing caseloads and eliminating more than 2,500 overdue investigations.

But too many children have been killed on Calica’s watch.

That’s a sad legacy to leave behind.


Twitter: @MaryMitchellCST

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