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National Editorial & Columnists

EDITORIALS ELSEWHERE: DCFS hotline in crisis

First line of defense against child abuse needs fixing

The 24-hour hotline at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is at the front line in the agency’s fight against child abuse and neglect. An incoming call about a potential abuse or neglect case can set in course a child’s rescue – or keep a child imperiled if not timely pursued.

Between 2015 and 2017, nearly half of all first-time callers into the hotline had to leave messages and then wait several days for a callback, the Tribune’s Elyssa Cherney recently reported. Some of those cases involved calls that the agency would deem an emergency, based on its own standards.

Last spring, a McCullom Lake police officer called the hotline to seek a probe into parents who allegedly let their children play on the roof of their house and allowed trash to build up inside their home. Three days passed before a DCFS worker called to follow up, but that worker tried reaching the officer at 1:30 a.m. It wasn’t until a week after the officer’s initial call that the agency took the children from the home and placed them in protective custody.

The litany of children whom DCFS has failed is well-known. Semaj Crosby, 17 months old, reported missing hours after a DCFS caseworker had left her trash-strewn home in 2017, and later found dead under a couch. Gizzell “Gizzy” Ford, 8, tortured to death by her grandmother in a vermin-infested apartment in the Austin neighborhood in 2013. And : Andrew “A.J.” Freund, the 5-year-old boy from Crystal Lake whose badly beaten body was found in a shallow grave. His parents are charged with his murder.

Behind that tragic roster – there are many more children we could list – is an agency that for years has failed horribly in its attempts to reform. DCFS’ turnstile of leadership has seen 15 directors or interim directors since 2003 – a rate of a new agency chief almost every year. Massive caseloads overwhelm agency investigators. “We believe that the problems plaguing DCFS are deep-seated and have existed for years,” DCFS’ acting director, Marc Smith, said in May. “Nothing is more important than getting this work right.”

That includes fixing the agency’s troubled hotline. Staff people manning the hotline have been overwhelmed by call volumes that have jumped from 222,719 in 2015 to 276,538 in 2018. It can be days before an agency worker calls back to conduct an “intake” session to determine whether further action is needed. "That’s not much of a hotline – that’s at best a lukewarm line or even a cold line,” Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert told Cherney. “If the hotline was truly a hotline, when you call it, somebody would actually talk to you right then and there.”

This is not a new problem for DCFS. The Tribune reported in 2012 that the percentage of callers who reach a specialist on the crucial first attempt has plummeted from 70% to 40% over the previous 11 years. Inadequate staffing of the hotline was cited in the death of one child in Kankakee in 2010.

DCFS is slated to get funding for as many as 300 more employees as part of the 2020 budget. The agency needs to ramp up resources to do a better job of protecting children. Heavy caseloads are a major problem for the department. So is that inadequate hotline. Better technology can help, such as services that automatically transcribe audio, which would free up time that hotline workers could devote toward assessing the validity of incoming reports of abuse. The agency says it will take a close look at the results of an audit, expected in October, examining the hotline. If another state has a better approach, there’s no shame in cribbing from it.

It’s good to see DCFS acknowledge the inadequacy of the hotline. Fixing it would bring the agency one step closer to solving the larger problem that has plagued DCFS for so long: Failing to protect vulnerable children, at a tragic cost.

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