CHICAGO (AP) — A newspaper investigation found 15 children died of abuse or neglect from 2012 to 2016 while their families received "intact family services" from organizations hired by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
The intact family services assist about 2,700 children statewide. It aims to offer counseling, resources and oversight to keep families together, instead of removing children from their homes and placing them in foster care.
The Chicago Tribune said its investigation found that only one death occurred under the program from 2007 to 2011. The spike in deaths came after DCFS privatized the program, shifting the care of families to nonprofit groups, according to the investigation.
The death of Verna Tobicoe, 5, was one of the cases cited in the newspaper investigation. Verna was discovered dead in a bathtub in May 2015. Authorities found lacerations in the girl's liver and intestines, and a skull fracture and bruises across her body from repeated blows.
The girlfriend of Verna's father, Lisamarie Villasana, 29, is awaiting trial for first-degree murder charges in the child's death. She has pleaded not guilty.
The agency didn't conduct forensic interviews with Verna's two siblings until after her death. During the interviews the children were taken outside of the home and questioned separately about mistreatment. Verna's siblings told the agency they were whipped, kicked and abused by Villasana and other adults, records show.
The children now live out of state with a foster family.
The state's new child welfare director, Beverly Walker, said she was alarmed by the newspaper's findings. She said she's started reforming the program by hiring more child protective staff and increasing the agency's oversight and supervision of the nonprofits.
"We are laser-beam focused," Walker said. "We're following up to make sure that our actions are leading to improvements."
She also said she's is looking to acquire more financial resources for the family services program.