More kids died from abuse, neglect than DCFS reported, agency says

December 10, 2013

By: Tony Arnold and Chris Fusco

AP
Denise Gonzales, acting director of the Department of Children and Family Services, testifies before the Illinois Senate Human Services' Subcommittee on Issues Relating to DCFS on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, in Chicago. The subcommittee held the special hearing to investigate a reported increase in deaths resulting from child abuse and neglect.

The number of kids 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 Tuesday 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 reported.

DCFS officials blamed errors in “the department’s tracking and reporting system,” including counting as a single death 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 the care of those children.

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

Interactive charts: Death rates from child abuse, neglect

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 documented 34 such deaths in 2012; death-case summaries were not available for 2013.

DCFS had never before made public such statistics, instead releasing only the total number of child abuse and neglect death cases statewide. But at Tuesday’s hearing, 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. There are 11 death investigations still pending for that year.

Abuse and neglect deaths in 2010, 2011 and 2012 were 8 percent higher than what the agency previously reported, though. There were 268 such deaths in those three years, compared to the 249 the agency reported.

Overall, DCFS undercounted the number of abuse and neglect deaths by 11 during the five-year period, with officials now saying the total number of deaths is 455.

Gonzales also 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.

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 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 told reporters she doesn’t buy the agency’s argument that the increase in child abuse and neglect deaths is the result of a policy change that is holding caretakers more accountable if children die because of 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 placed their children in unsafe sleep conditions because of alcohol or drug use.

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

A report released Tuesday by DCFS confirms a recent Sun-Times/WBEZ investigation revealing that the number of child deaths due to neglect or abuse has risen since 2010. Here are the numbers cited in the report:

Chris Fusco is a Chicago Sun-Times staff reporter. Follow him @fuscochris. Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.