Following a neighbor’s call to police, these tragic words were written into their case records: “5-year-old Johnny Cooper said … ‘Somebody was hitting me, and the belt hurt, but my mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.’” Just four months later, both of Johnny’s parents were arrested and charged with killing their little son. His mother stabbed him to death during one of her drug-induced rages. His father buried him the backyard.
This horrendous report is true, except for the name. It should be noted that DCFS had this family on their radar, with a caseworker periodically checking in on them. Sadly, the tragic, short life is one of too many brutal DCFS cases on record.
The trial had a unique quality as it was the first time in DCFS history in which a caseworker was held responsible for neglect. His excuse for allowing the abuses was that he was overworked and didn’t think the situation was as dire as it actually was. His reports of previous visits to the household noted filthy conditions, urine and feces on the floor, and multiple open liquor bottles strewn on various surfaces. Both parents were found guilty of murder and were sentenced to 30 years in prison.
When DCFS was founded in 1964 here in Illinois, it was considered an outstanding service helping families in need. It had adequate funding and caseworker staffing. In its early years the agency was prominently acknowledged for the positive impact it had families. However, the quality of services provided early on soon faded. Inadequate funding meant less services and fewer caseworkers.
Internal upheaval within the organization ensued. Although the state Department of Finance increased funding to DCFS, the agency was never equal to the original agency. Dedicated workers and leaders were difficult to keep, especially since the agency kept failing to meet its goals. Even the most diligent caseworkers were faced with the impossible task of keeping children safe due to the huge caseloads of families they had. Some critics see DCFS as an agency with a revolving door of applicants. It’s an agency in chaos. It doesn’t have adequate staff to handle the daunting task of the work. It has too often failed to protect children in a time of ever-increasing need for these crucial services. It is a “perfect storm” of dysfunction that fails families.
It cannot be overlooked that DCFS has played many active roles in helping Illinois families. There are many successes in which needs were met, be that support for a family, reunification, or finding safe homes for children. Often DCFS works in collaboration with various educational systems, social services, and religious groups for needed family disruptions and foster care. These collaborations must be strengthened.
The original goals with which DCFS was established feel like an off-shoot of some of the ideals of Jane Addams and the Hull House. The early residents who lived in the settlement house helped the poor by delivering babies, nursing the sick, preparing the dead for burial, and sheltering young women from abuse.
Poor, immigrant children were occasionally treated to a field trip. My husband, Marty, was one of those children. He told how he was being rambunctious and that Jane Addams herself firmly took his hand and sat with him on the streetcar. He said he did not feel he was being punished. Although at first, he remembers being somewhat embarrassed, he then felt comforted, safe, calm, and understood.
Isn’t this what we want for all children, at a minimum?
DCFS is not a lost cause, yet this albatross of a now dysfunctional agency needs reconfiguring. Protecting children and providing services to families is too critical for it not to be revitalized.
Let us prioritize attention to, and support for, these necessary services.