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Too soon to tell if bump in child deaths numbers are real

Updated: November 21, 2013 5:46PM

Let me begin by thanking the Sun-Times for the opportunity to talk to your readers about the role that the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) plays in ensuring safe, loving, permanent homes for our youngest and most vulnerable.

Of the more than three million children in Illinois, one in five will be abused or neglected before they turn 18. In Fiscal Year 2013 alone, the DCFS child abuse and neglect hotline received more than 236,000 calls and initiated nearly 67,000 investigations — staggering numbers considering that an estimated 70 percent of child abuse goes unreported.

The Sun Times recently reported an increase in the number of child deaths by abuse and neglect in Illinois for the fiscal year that ended June 30. That’s a conclusion that we think is premature. What has increased is the number of child deaths that DCFS has classified as abuse and neglect, an important distinction.

We feel that it’s just too early to say whether the increase in deaths that we classified as abuse or neglect reflects an actual increase in those deaths or whether the number was influenced by policy changes. Those changes include a new approach to holding parents and caregivers accountable for creating safe sleep environments for infants: Alone, on their Backs and in Cribs (ABC).

Behind each number is a child, and we owe it to those children and their families to be as thorough as we can in our review.

One child death due to abuse or neglect in Illinois is one too many. Adults have a responsibility to the children in their care to keep them safe. When that isn’t possible, it’s our job to make sure they all get the support they need.

Over the last two years, DCFS has eliminated a backlog of 2,500 open investigations. We’ve streamlined operations to focus resources on front-line caseworkers while eliminating a layer of middle management. Our investigators are on call 24 hours a day making life-changing and life-saving decisions about the children and families we serve.

We take a collaborative approach to our work, including our Office of the Inspector General, the Office of the Public Guardian, law enforcement, the courts, the medical community, social service agencies and others to develop comprehensive approaches to child welfare and safety. Because we believe in transparency and accountability, we welcome constructive scrutiny of our work, as it can only help to make us stronger.

We also need the public’s help. The vast majority of children who die by abuse or neglect every year never had prior contact with the department. If we don’t know a child is being hurt, we can’t help. DCFS is always just a phone call away: 800-25-ABUSE.

I’d like to close as I began, with a thank you: Thank you to the hardworking people of DCFS and our private agency partners who have dedicated their lives to the critical work of making life-altering decisions for children and families every day. We are called to do this work because abused and neglected children need us. It is a privilege to serve them, and I look forward to continuing on the path to ensuring safety, permanency and well-being for every child in Illinois.

Denise Gonzales is acting director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services

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