Nineteen children who had recently been on the Department of Children and Family Services’ radar have died in just the first 11 weeks of the 2020 fiscal year, according to the agency’s inspector general.
Those deaths came after a particularly tumultuous year for the department, in which 124 children, whose family had some sort of involvement with DCFS within the previous year died during the 2019 fiscal year.
The latest death of a child whose family the state was keeping tabs on is 7-week-old Hendrix Pitcock, who died Aug. 16 in Lawrence County, in far southeastern Illinois. WICS TV first reported on Pitcock’s death earlier this week, and confirmed that a caseworker had visited Pitcock’s home hours before the baby died. DCFS had begun investigating the family more than two weeks after Pitcock and his twin brother were born.
At a marathon four-hour joint House committee hearing on DCFS-related issues Tuesday, more details about Pitcock’s death emerged from Danielle Gomez, a supervising attorney with the Cook County Public Guardian’s office. Gomez testified that Pitcock, who was born prematurely, had been found with bruising to his back, testicles and anus, and had no food in his system. She also said the family’s home was in disarray, and that police found meth foils in the home.
Pitcock’s death echoes other high-profile child deaths in recent memory, including the starvation death of 2-year-old Ta’Naja Barnes in Decatur in February, even after the girl had been the subject of multiple investigations by DCFS — and the alleged murder of Crystal Lake 4-year-old AJ Freund, who was allegedly beaten to death by his parents in April, after DCFS had investigated the family.
Of the 124 deaths of children in the 2019 fiscal year that had been in contact with DCFS in the previous 12 months, about 17 percent of them have preliminarily been ruled a homicide. Here’s the breakdown:
- Pending autopsy: 35
- Accident: 32
- Homicide: 21
- Natural Causes: 20
- Suicide: 6
- Undetermined: 10
The 2019 fiscal year was the deadliest in a decade for children who had some sort of contact with DCFS in the 12 months prior to their deaths. That contact could be anything from an open investigation, the receipt of “intact” family services meant to help keep children in their homes and out of the foster care system, or even cases that had been investigated and closed, determining a report of abuse or neglect “unfounded.” Some of the children are in foster care.
The Daily Line reported earlier this year that the number of children who died after a DCFS investigation had been closed is rising, even as the raw number of deaths had gone down.
Until DCFS Inspector General Meryl Paniak puts out her annual report in January, it won’t be known how many of the 124 children who died after contact with the agency had been receiving services at the time of death — or if their families were under investigation or had an investigation closed.
- FY 2019: 124 child deaths
- FY 2018: 98 child deaths
- FY 2017: 108 child deaths
- FY 2016: 100 child deaths
- FY 2015: 96 child deaths
- FY 2014: 99 child deaths
- FY 2013: 93 child deaths
- FY 2012: 106 child deaths
- FY 2011: 113 child deaths
- FY 2010: 84 child deaths
- FY 2009: 89 child deaths
But the sharp rise in deaths across the board had lawmakers Tuesday asking how DCFS was going to use the new state funding passed in the spring.
“I think the public is demanding that we see progress,” State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago), the chair of the Adoption and Child Welfare Committee told DCFS officials Tuesday. “A lot of us up here killed ourselves to get that $89 million (in state money) in the budget, but we have to see progress.”
DCFS Director Marc Smith defended the efforts of his agency Tuesday, saying he was “proud” of his team’s work in the few months since he was appointed as director. The agency’s deputy director, Debra Dyers-Webster also listed off dozens of new beds available for youth needing intensive psychiatric care.
But lawmakers were particularly concerned with the agency’s hotline that receives calls from mandated reporters and citizens alike who alert DCFS to possible child abuse or neglect. In May, Auditor General Frank Mautino’s office issued an audit finding that nearly half of all first-time callers between 2015 and 2017 had to leave messages and wait several days for a callback — even in cases that were deemed emergencies by the agency’s own standards.
Freshman State Rep. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia) said Tuesday he was skeptical of sending more state funding to an agency beleaguered with issues, and acknowledged to the panel and those testifying that he’d voted against the state budget at the end of May.
Seven-week-old Pitcock lived and died in Bailey’s district. He told The Daily Line that in his area, churches are frequently the actors that intervene to try and help struggling families.
“Then it gets dirty, it keeps getting deeper, the problems and the time — sometimes people aren’t committed to putting that in,” Bailey said. “So yes, obviously helping DCFS be as effective as they can to help the children, but ultimately doing whatever we can do to help the parents.”
Bailey said he knows DCFS employees work hard — “almost 24/7” — and said he and other Republicans have ideas for the agency, but accused Democrats, who are in the supermajority in both the House and Senate, of ignoring his side of the aisle.
A DCFS spokesperson did not return a call or email requesting comment.