Tuesday, October 18, 2016

DCFS in Crisis

After Trump loses the election and those Republicans still standing desperately search for, retrieve, and reassemble the fragments of the GOP, reduced to small jagged pieces like an airliner blown to bits over the ocean, desperately trying to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it, Illinois will still be in trouble.

We have no budget, no recognizable plan for pension reform, no clear direction on tax policy or revenue, no clue really as to our future.  So while the spotlight has been off Springfield, the trouble has gone on unabated.  In my younger days I might have taken the policy silence booming from Springfield as an indication the major political parties are busy working towards solutions to be revealed in the fall session.  Wiser now, I have no faith that is happening.  I believe we are exactly where we were a year and a half ago when the state budget expired and state elected official dropped into the black hole of crisis management.  All their energy has gone into gaining a political advantage for their party, none of it toward finding solutions to our problems.  All about them, nothing about us.

That is the backdrop for all news in Illinois regarding services dependent on state funding.  On Sunday September 25th the headline of the Chicago Tribune read

“Why state couldn’t save 11 troubled kids”

I read news about DCFS differently these days.  The Department of Children and Family Services is the state code department charged with caring for abused, neglected, and dependent children in Illinois.  In another related article Tribune writer Duaa Eldeib reported a federal judge approved a plan to keep more kids in stable, homelike settings instead of institutions “as part of an ongoing effort to overhaul the state’s troubled child welfare system.”  The plan was filed jointly by DCFS and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.  Claire Stewart, ACLU attorney who works on the project, is hopeful the plan will ensure sustainable change.

“The Department is in crisis right now,” Stewart said.

OF course it is.  Because I led a private child welfare agency that accepted money and contracts from DCFS in order to help abused, neglected, and dependent kids and their families I was often defensive about criticism of the system.  Three years (and counting) past retirement I am much less so, no longer scared to death of calls from the media or seeing my agency’s name or my own show up in an investigative reporter’s account of the system’s failures, of decisions gone wrong, resulting in kids abused and kids dying in our care.
Child welfare is a messy and emotional business.  It’s fraught with risk, muddied choices, iffy decisions, and never enough resources.  Balanced between the competing interests of protecting children from harm and the rights of parents to keep their kids and raise them as they choose, failure is always in the cards.  It hinges some say in how those cards are dealt.   Cynics in child welfare say it’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  Fortunately the cynics don’t prevail.
DCFS has been one crisis after another for decades, with runs of good years bookended by years of startlingly poor performance.  And now gun violence is spiking out of control in Chicago and other communities in Illinois where our most vulnerable children and their fragile families live.  Of course child welfare is in crisis.  Illinois is in crisis: its budget, its state and local governments, its school systems, and its future.  Would you expect DCFS to escape strong and unharmed?

Investigative reporter Christy Gutowski’s front page story began where the truth about child welfare has always lived, in the individual accounts of children and families in the system.  She based her story on an unfiltered homicide report from DCFS’ Inspector General, an independent fact finding agency designed to expose the agency’s successes and failures.  The Inspector General goes outside the DCFS case file to interview and gather information from police, the juvenile justice system, courts, hospitals, and schools. I was also scared of calls from the DCFS Inspector General’s staff, while at the same time applauding their work, and a reader of that office’s reports from cover to cover.   We learn from failure.  Without objective inquiry we spin our wheels.

Juvenile Court and DCFS are held to high standards of confidentiality, which is a double edged sword.  There is a tremendous temptation to hide behind it.  By protecting the legitimate, humane, and deserved privacy rights of children and families caught in the system we run the risk of also protecting bad practice by those that serve them.  Court reporters, caseworkers, public defenders, judges, and police officers often know the real story but are prevented from commenting publicly.  While the DCFS Inspector General’s report does not identify children and families by name “a Tribune review of other public records and interviews revealed the names behind the complex personal stories.”  Clever and effective.

We’re awash in information.  Is it any wonder the real stories have gotten out?  I now find myself on the side of disclosure, of bringing the light of day to the child welfare system for its own good.  Who would have thought that?  Not me.  ‘They’ll jump to conclusions’ I used to fear.  ‘They won’t understand the complexity’ I used to think.  I’ve changed my mind.  Now that I’m out of the system I’m pretty sure you’ll understand.  I’m sorry I ever doubted you.

Laquan McDonald as you know was gunned down by the Chicago Police at age 17 on October 20, 2014.    The autopsy counted 16 bullet wounds.  You’ve seen the video many times.  Some of those 16 shots hit Laqaun’s body as he laid motionless on the pavement.  Turns out the story began long before that.  I knew then that Laquan had a back story, was a ward of DCFS, but until now the details of his younger life came out only in fits and starts.  The child welfare system, the juvenile justice system, and the school system failed Laquan McDonald long before law enforcement killed him.  Here’s the short story as put together by Christy Gutowski.  She had to dig to get it.  She did a great job.  Her primary source of information appears to be the DCFS Inspector General’s report covering a two year period ending June 30, 2015.  Laqaun was but one of eleven children under DCFS care that died during those two years.

I can almost see the Inspector General’s report the Tribune reporter read, 119 pages of grief and mayhem bound like a catalog and delivered across the state to child welfare agencies and “the system” like a bomb in a padded envelope.  The Inspector General’s reports exposed us, Illinois’ child welfare practitioners, as we were without spin.  It methodically listed all our faults, shortcomings, misdeeds, and worse, our lack of devotion to the missions of our organizations which at times resulted in the death of the very children we are here to help.   This was the homicide report.  I read all the Inspector General’s reports each and every time they were issued to learn how other agencies failed in hopes I could keep my agency from doing the same.  Here’s what Christy found out about Laquan that was hidden away.

Laquan McDonald was asked this open ended and simple question on an evaluative test while psychiatrically hospitalized at age 11:

“What does every child get?”

The standard answers, probably your kids’ answers, would be benign responses like: hugs, food, toys.  On his own and without prompting the preadolescent Laquan came up with this answer.


Laquan’s mother was 15 and in DCFS custody because of a caregiver’s drug use when she had her first child,  baby boy Laquan.  She raised Laquan for three years before he and his 8 month old sister were taken into DCFS custody due to accusations of inadequate supervision.  Her children were returned to her but taken away again when Laquan was five due to allegations of corporal punishment.  During those years DCFS twice placed Laquan, briefly, in foster care outside his family.  Both placements were short, one and two months.  During the second placement Laquan said he was beaten, barely fed, and touched in a sexual manner.

After that Goldie Hunter, his great grandmother, was given legal guardianship of Laquan.  He lived with her for ten years until her death at 78 in August of 2013.  During her 78 years Goldie Hunter, a retired laborer, married and widowed, with a seventh grade education, managed to care for at least 12 children, her own and others from the family’s younger generations, including Laquan her great grandson.  She raised those kids in Austin, one of Chicago’s tough west side neighborhoods.  The report reveals that Goldie Hunter realized Laquan’s problems were beyond her ability to help, as she grew older and more ill, and wanted more for her great grandson.  Laquan was never given therapy related to sexual abuse despite being an angry child with aggressive tendencies and knowledge of sex far beyond his developmental age.

Here’s what Laquan got.  He received special education services in school.  However his disruptive and aggressive behavior, truancy, suspensions and eventual involvement in gang life made progress dismal in the six or so schools he attended.  Any services delivered through the school system would have been spotty at best.  Attention to Laquan came mostly from police and probation.  He became one of the many kids with a file in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, but real help from neither. He was arrested 26 times in three years.  Seven drug possession cases advanced to juvenile court referrals, only one resulted in a conviction.  He was placed on home confinement, probation with electronic monitoring, ordered to attend school, perform community service, and attend outpatient mental health and drug treatment services.  It’s easy to order services, quite a lot harder to make them happen.

When Laquan’s great grandmother died he was not placed in the care of the great aunt listed in the back up DCFS plan but in the home of a young single uncle whom the inspector general’s office described as ill equipped to supervise him.

A year before his death, Laquan’s mother petitioned the court to regain custody of her firstborn son.  She had regularly attended therapy and was making progress at a local clinic.  In an attempt to reconcile mother and child Laquan was assigned by DCFS to attend the same outpatient clinic his mother was attending.  He did not attend the program for three months.  It was 14 miles from his uncle’s house.  The DCFS paid foster program serving Laquan at that time, supervising the placement with his uncle, did not transport him there.  Instead he was referred to another program closer to his home.  He died before attending.

Laquan’s story is only one.  It has become famous, gone viral as we now say, but don’t be confused.  The many other young men and women who die on the streets of Chicago have equally compelling stories.  I applaud Christy Gutowski for finding a legal path to share that story with you.  Her article is longer.  It chronicles young lives beyond Laquan’s, those that did not make the news, which did not result in videos you could watch on your smartphone.

What does Laquan’s story tell us?  It tells us we know who needs help.  Persons outside Laquan’s family, specifically DCFS, knew Laquan needed help since he was 3.  In the 14 years that passed from Laquan coming to the attention of our state’s child welfare system till his death he got very little.  Laquan was a challenge to serve.  And he lived in Austin.  Another kid from Austin who never got the help he needed.

Have we written Austin off?  Has Austin joined Englewood and East St. Louis, the west side of Rockford, and (you know your part of the state best, insert the name of an abandoned community near you here _______________) as places we’ve given up on?  Do you ascribe to the general wisdom that says ‘You can’t fix those schools, you can’t supply enough cops, you can’t create enough foster homes, you can’t provide and pay for enough therapy and drug treatment, there's not enough money’? Are kids simply being abandoned to streets on which kids like Laquan are born, live a short time, and then die?

There’s always hope though.  I was encouraged by the plan agreed to by DCFS and the ACLU to once again bring reforms to the system.  They haven’t given up.  Those plans have the added advantage of a federal judge ordering the state to spend in areas the ACLU and DCFS agree are needed.  With that agreement behind them DCFS may have a chance in this awful budget climate to force the legislature to spend real money to fix the problems that plague DCFS kids like Laquan McDonald and their families.

Back to the Trib.  Duaa Eldeib, who I am guessing is young, had either the good fortune or the moxie to talk to Peter Digre, who has to be old by now, perhaps older than me but I won’t guess his age.  She quoted Mr. Digre, who came from a small private agency in the 80’s to help then DCFS Director Greg Coler put together a system of services for kids not yet in the system, which is as we speak being strangled and dismantled due to lack of money.   While I stayed in Illinois Pete left and helped other states, and has returned to Illinois as a DCFS associate director.  That was a good hire.  Pete must have said this to Duaa who wisely and effectively closed her article with it. 

“The overwhelming reality that confronts us is that every single child, every single youth needs to know that they have a committed and consistent adult who is theirs and is making a lifetime commitment to them.”

That commitment Pete is talking about may be the bond you have or had with your Mom or Dad.  If you are lucky you had that commitment from both of them.  If your kids are lucky they have it with you.  I had it in spades.  I was the youngest in a big family.  Though I rarely needed to do so I had no doubt I could call any of at least ten people who would help me no matter how badly I screwed up.  My life has been awash with committed and consistent adults.  That is what we have to give kids like Laquan McDonald.  It’s not easy.  We have no choice but to keep trying.  To do otherwise would be to declare moral bankruptcy.    


  1. Brilliant, Dave. As usual, incisive and poignant. Joining you in hoping, knowing, we can do better as a state by our vulnerable children and families.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.