After months of data silence and a searing investigation by the Inspector General, DCFS responds to FOIA requests. But where are the caseload canaries?

The Illinois Department of Child and Family Services director released a bevy of state child abuse data Friday in response to several Freedom of Information Act requests from Foster Care Alumni of America Illinois (FCAAIL). And it only took eight months.

As the department has not made the data available on their official state website, FCAAIL is publicly hosting the data which can be accessed and downloaded online. [Google Spreadsheet]

The document’s data is compiled differently than previous executive summary reports, making it difficult to spot monthly trends in child abuse throughout the state. The Mar. 30 data release from DCFS does not show month-by-month comparison which would have been otherwise available if the department had continued its 35-year trend of data releases. The department’s last release was in July 2017, just a month after Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed DCFS Director Beverly Walker.

The data is also missing a crucial metric: the number of repeat calls from or about families on state “indicated” lists where credible evidence of abuse has been found by investigators. [July 2017 Report]

Topline findings in Mar. 30 data:

  • Daily Abuse Reports – In the current fiscal year, an average of 51 children a day, more than 1500 a month, are indicated as abused or neglected. Indicated child deaths from abuse or neglect are currently on track to repeat the state’s three-year trend of approximately 75 deaths a year. 94 child death investigations are still pending conclusion.
    • In the Cook region total indicated investigations–for both families and facilities–have risen since FY2013’s recording of 3,757 but declines became more apparent last year with 3,389 reports. From 2014 through 2017, indicated reports curved, peaking in 2015 at 5,579.
    • Despite the vast differences in population, the numbers for central and northern regions are quite similar. However, central region is the only which has not marked a decline in indicated abuse investigations. It’s climbed from 3,622 in FY2013 to 5,850 in FY2017 without a single drop and has already outpaced Cook for the year, reporting 4,047 so far in FY2018.
  • Infants exposed to drugs – Since FY2013, sharp increases are noted among indicated reports of substance-exposed infants. The rise is most pronounced in the state’s central and northern regions. In central Illinois, the number of substance-exposed infants has risen from 87 reports in FY2013 to 181 in FY2017. At the end of February this year, that number is already at 159 children, rivaling the Cook County region’s 153 so far this year. Cook region numbers have remained close to 200 a year since FY2013.
  • Child trafficking – The department has added a data category to monitor reports of human tracking. So far this year, 130 total cases of child trafficking are recorded. Among them, only 18 are indicated cases. 14 are in the Cook region, which had a total of 30 indicated cases last year, double the number in FY2015. In the child trafficking category over all, the number of “unfounded” trafficking reports have risen over most regions, which could indicate wider public reporting of suspected cases.
  • Sex abuse – The rate of indicated child sexual abuse victims appears to be on track to meet last year’s number. In the Cook region in FY2017, there were 1,390 indicated victims. That’s just slightly more than in FY2013. More abuse victims were counted in FY2014 and 15, 1,453 and 1,430 respectively. So far this year, there have been 893. The central region mimics Cook’s patterns closely, with northern region reports numbering slightly less.
  • [ AP Report: Newly released federal figures show a sharp rise in child abuse fatalities in the U.S., with the bulk of the increase occurring in two states, Indiana and Texas, where child-welfare agencies have been in disarray / US Child Maltreatment Report ]

“We are excited that the department has released the data and hope they once again continue the tradition of releasing it every month so more agencies can be aware of child abuse,” said FCAAIL President James McIntyre. “It’s a massive win for us.”

[FCAAIL’s 2018 Legislative Agenda]

The ACLU, the Association of Social Workers Illinois, and other human rights oriented groups have also been put on hold on hold waiting for the data with FCAAIL.

McIntyre said: “We want to be helpful to the department. We don’t want to be adversaries. But if you hide information from us and from the public, we are going to jump in every time because we have everything to lose.”

Dangerous Absence

The most noticeable missing piece in the released data are the number of Subsequent Oral Reports (SOR) from indicated families, or instances when a second call comes in about possible abuse in a family, and the investigator has already found credible evidence of abuse. The measurement applies to children across the above-listed spectrum of case types.

Total SORs–both indicated and unfounded–have steadily risen across every region in the state since FY2013. The numbers in the Mar. 30 release reveal that

This particular section of data gathering has been dogged by inconsistency in the past, driven by a lack of uniform practice across the state’s phone call screeners and compounded by high call numbers.

“They haven’t given an indication rate and that is alarming. We are already 460 reports ahead of where we were last year. And these are kids that are being re-abused,” McIntyre said.

SORs are supposed to be brought to the attention of the family’s case manager within 48 hours, and investigated by the case worker within two weeks. The case manager, called the Intact Family or Permanency Worker, then completes a home safety checklist before the case can be closed, and a supervisor signs off. [DCFS Home Safety Checklist]

Not only do SOR numbers give agencies and the public a way to spot recurring abuse of children, they also serve as canary in the coalmine for caseload pressure on investigators and child protection staff–particularly Intact Family Services, a section hard-hit by the budget impasse.

An unflinching January 2018 report from former DCFS Office of Inspector General Denise Kane uncovered “Intact Family Service Workers’ caseloads were dangerously high–in some instances 50-100% above the prescribed limit.”

Kane–who was ousted by Gov. Bruce Rauner shortly after the report was issued–found the department’s reviews following child deaths “ignored the stark reality that in some overloaded offices, investigators were actually offered incentives to close cases. The reviews failed to mention that private agencies had a no-decline requirement in their contracts, meaning they could not refuse a case for intact family services, despite the fact that some of these cases came with a 99% probability that the child would suffer death or serious injury within 24-months.” [OIG Jan 2018]

“The extreme probability ratings were based on predictive analytics by a Department vendor that later acknowledged that the language was ‘confusing,’” Kane wrote, referring to the $366,000 Rapid Safety Feedback program originally contracted in a no-bid deal by former DCFS Director George Sheldon. “Whether statistically significant or not, the probability ratings should have raised questions.”

DCFS halted the use of the fledgling tech in December 2017 after data-entry inconsistencies–such as those which have dogged SORs in the past–contributed to DCFS being blindsided by several high-profile child deaths. [Chicago Tribune, Dec. 7]

“Unconscionably, in spite of these dire forecasts, DCFS offered no additional funding for increased interventions with families, and after the first month the DCFS contract afforded agencies only one in-person contact each month for a child and a family. No special funding was triggered to allow for increased eyes on a family,” said Kane. “None of the reports made a call for a fortified state budget, without which even the strongest agency leadership will be hampered.”

For investigators caught between a mandatory limit on the number of in-person visits, mandatory response and reporting protocols, and dramatic rises in caseloads through the state’s budget impasse–SORs play a key role in determining budget needs and the effectiveness of executive management.

A significant change in how DCFS numbers are reported compared to previous years will require additional time to analyze for child advocates across the state.

Missing Data Timeline:

  • July 21: FCAAIL asks a second time for the DCFS monthly data release after failing to receive a response from the department [FCAAIL request 7/21/18]
  • Dec. 7: After additional requests, McIntyre receives an email from FOIA Officer Bret Angelos, relaying technical problems which prevent the department from issuing the reports. It reads, in full: “I checked with the Department of Innovation & Technology which handles the DCFS computer systems on the statistical reports issue that you called about yesterday.  Apparently the Executive Statistical Summary and Child Abuse and Neglect Statistics reports haven’t been updated to the DCFS internal and external websites due to problems with the DW90 Nomad mainframe database. The DW90 Nomad mainframe database creates the investigations data sets necessary to complete the ESS and CA/N reports. The Department of Innovation & Technology reports that they have been working diligently to resolve the  issue but the problem currently still exists. They are checking on the status of a fix for me and I’ll let you know and try and get a timeframe.”
  • Jan. 31, FCAAIL releases a statement in advance of the governor’s annual State of the State Address, once again calling on the administration to release child abuse data. [FCAAIL SOTU Statement]
  • Mar. 7 – WCIA’s Raquel Martin reports on the department’s continued inaction, with an interesting quote from DCFS. [WCIA]
    • “When asked when new data would become available a DCFS spokesperson responded, ‘We are determining whether there is a legal mandate to produce this particular report.’ The issue could be brought to light in during a committee hearing Thursday, but it’s unclear if DCFS will be attending.”
  • Mar. 14 – FCAAIL releases a lengthy report to the Illinois General Assembly, informing the panel of an intent to FOIA the department, and of an exchange with Walker: [FCAAIL report 3/14/18]
    • Mar. 21 – The department responds to FCAAIL’s FOIA request with a five-day extension request which said “Two or more components of DCFS need to be consulted regarding the substance of the request.” [DCFS FOIA extension request 3/21/18]
  • Mar. 27 – McIntyre tweets an image of another FOIA response from the department, requesting additional time: “Your FOIA requested specific statistics in categories that have regularly appeared in the ‘Protective Services’ section of the Executive Statistical Report. The ability to produce that report in an automated fashion malfunctioned. However, our Communications Office reports that we expect to produce the specific data you requested no later than Friday.” [Tweeted Image]
  • Mar. 30 – The department responds to the FOIA [DCFS FOIA response 3/30/18]
    • It reads: “There may be slight differences in some numbers for past years as a result of the new method of extracting the data, which now comes directly from SACWIS. Changes made over the years in SACWIS and in investigative practice were not consistently incorporated into the old technology for creating the report. That was an important reason that we did not simply repair the old technology when it broke down.”