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New DCFS boss: Report on child deaths ‘needs immediate attention’

Acting DCFS director Denise Gonzales | WBEZ photo

Acting DCFS director Denise Gonzales | WBEZ photo

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Updated: December 23, 2013 2:15PM



The acting director of the state’s child-welfare system says she has begun assembling experts to examine the rising number of abuse and neglect deaths among children who have had involvement with the agency, in response to a Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ investigation.

“I need to get to concrete numbers, the faces behind those numbers, the underlying condition and the contributing factor as to why this happened — and then put it all together and say, ‘What do we need to do?’ ” Denise Gonzales, named last week to lead the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, said Wednesday. “This needs to be done in very short order because this is a situation that needs immediate attention.”

Analyzing 10 years of agency reports about DCFS-involved abuse and neglect deaths, the Sun-Times and WBEZ found 228 such deaths between July 1, 2002, and June, 30, 2012. The number of deaths more than doubled between 2010 and 2011 — from 15 to 34. It held steady at 34 in 2012.

Of the 2012 deaths involving the agency, 15 were caused by abuse, including children beaten or shot to death by their caregivers — the highest number of abuse deaths since 2007, the news organizations found.

The other 19 DCFS-involved deaths in 2012 were caused by neglect. Eleven involved infants smothered or falling after being placed in dangerous 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 placed their children in unsafe sleep conditions because of alcohol or drug use.

Statewide, there were 111 child abuse and neglect death cases in a 12-month period ending in mid-2013 — the most in Illinois in 30 years. The report from the agency’s inspector general, Denise Kane, that will detail which of those deaths involved families DCFS was monitoring or investigating typically won’t be out until January.

Gonzales — who has worked in Illinois’ and Iowa’s child-welfare systems since 1987 — took over as acting director of the agency on Friday, replacing Richard Calica, who stepped down following a cancer diagnosis.

The Sun-Times and WBEZ analysis has prompted calls to improve child safety, including recommendations from Kane, who said last week there needs to be better coordination between DCFS and the Chicago Police Department on child-protection investigations. Kane also said more DCFS workers need to be working evening and night shifts — times when families typically are home.

Gonzales said she has spoken with Kane and other experts within and outside the agency about the increase in child deaths. “I’ve got preliminary information starting to come in,” Gonzales said.

As for Kane’s suggestions, Gonzales said: “We need to be where the family is. . . . And we’re doing an analysis of that at this time so that we can appropriately respond to when children and families are in need.

“We’re starting to put the pieces together and reaching out to law enforcement. We have to share the information and decide how we’re going to work together collaboratively.”

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

Email: cfusco@suntimes.com

Twitter: @FuscoChris



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