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One child’s death is too many

Updated: December 23, 2013 1:38PM

There is no acceptable number when it comes to children who die after being abused and neglected.

Yet Illinois suffered 111 child abuse and neglect death cases statewide in a 12-month period ending in mid-2013 — the most in 30 years.

Even worse, some of those deaths and others over the last 10 years involved families that had contact with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, according to a recent series by the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ based on an examination of a decade’s worth of cases.

The reporters found 228 DCFS-involved abuse and neglect deaths between 2002 and 2012, including a more than doubling between 2010 and 2011 — from 15 to 34. It held steady at 34 in 2012.

On Wednesday, DCFS Acting Director Denise Gonzales, who took over on Friday after the director resigned due to serious illness, made clear these numbers demand quick attention. Gonzales said she already had assembled a team to examine the data.

“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?’ ” Gonzales told the Sun-Times after a live WBEZ interview.

That is the right question and answers are readily available. We’ll lay some out in short order, but first a word on the data: As the Sun-Times said in its reports, the uptick in neglect deaths may be partly a function of a change in labeling. In December 2011, DCFS began classifying parents with neglect if an infant was smothered or fell after being placed in dangerous sleeping conditions. These deaths — 11 of the 34 DCFS-involved deaths in 2012 — were not regularly counted as neglect cases before 2012. DCFS should be applauded for making this change and not penalized for an uptick in neglect deaths.

Despite that labeling issue, the Sun-Times also found that abuse cases are up as well, at the highest level since 2007. It’s also critical to note that DCFS caseloads rose significantly in the 2000s, undoubtedly putting children at unnecessary risk. Former Director Richard Calica, who started in late 2011, added 138 new investigators to the child-welfare system, reducing caseloads from as high as 20 to nine per investigator.

Now, some solutions:

♦ The Sun-Times and WBEZ cobbled together the DCFS-involved death numbers from annual reports by DCFS’ inspector general. The data should be made available in a clean, direct format, and should include greater details — In what counties did the deaths occur? How old were the victims? — to help DCFS better understand the weak links. We say this with some caution, knowing not every “DCFS-involved” death is the same. Fair definitions matter a great deal.

♦ DCFS’ IG offered up two relatively easy solutions: staggering DCFS investigator hours so more are available at night when families are at home, and creating a DCFS liaison to the police department to ensure better communication. Gonzales says she is open to working on both solutions.

♦ The Sun-Times stories made clear that too many calls of suspected abuse to DCFS are not being fully investigated or being referred to the courts. We also heard that from Katherine Tyson McCrea, a professor of social work at Loyola University of Chicago. The reasons are many, chief among them being a lack of resources, and the results can be devastating. Teens and preteens, who sometimes report the abuse themselves, take yet another round of abuse when their tormenter figures out they had spoken up, McCrea said.

And the saddest part? We could do better.

“We know how to treat abusive parents, we know how to solve these problems and they are well documented,” McCrea said. “As a society, we do not have to tolerate this.”

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