SPRINGFIELD — Lawmakers on Tuesday pressed officials with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services about how the agency plans to spend an additional $128 million in state and federal funding that it received for 2020, the most significant boost to its coffers after years of budget cuts.
Testifying at a hearing convened by the Illinois House Adoption & Child Welfare Committee, DCFS officials said a large portion of the funds will go toward a 5% rate increase for private social services agencies that contract with the department. The agencies, which handle about 85% of DCFS intact family and foster care cases, had not received cost-of-living adjustments since 2015, according to the department.
Additional money will be allocated to purchasing a federally mandated software system and paying the salaries for 301 more workers at the agency. As part of the staffing plan, DCFS will add 71 child protection investigators and 17 workers to the child abuse hotline, two areas that are crucial for flagging cases of alleged abuse or neglect but have been criticized for being understaffed.
DCFS received the influx of money when Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the state budget in June. DCFS received a total of $1.3 billion in state dollars and federal grants.
Acting Director Marc Smith vowed that DCFS "will continue to hold ourselves to a new standard" with the additional resources it received. More than 2,000 staff members have enrolled in or have taken a new training course, and the department has reviewed 14,000 pending child abuse or neglect cases to assess its performance, Smith said.
"Many of the challenges we face are deeply rooted and will require time to fix," Smith said at the hearing held in downtown Chicago. "We have made significant progress over the past several months, and I am incredibly proud of the efforts of my entire team, but we must move forward with continued urgency."
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Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the committee, expressed frustration over the slow rate of progress but also acknowledged the agency suffered from repeated budget cuts in recent years.
"I think the public is demanding that we see progress," she said. "... 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."
Smith took the helm of the long-troubled agency in March after being appointed by Pritzker, who personally funded a $50,000 national search for a new director. Smith is the 15th person to lead the child welfare agency since 2003, a number that includes acting and interim directors.
Almost immediately after taking the position, Smith faced fallout from the death of 5-year-old Andrew "A.J" Freund in Crystal Lake, whose family had been investigated by DCFS several times before he was allegedly beaten to death and buried in a shallow grave by his parents. Four months before the boy's death, a department investigator deemed an allegation of abuse unfounded after an emergency doctor examined a bruise on A.J.'s hip but could not determine what caused the injury.
Danielle Gomez, a supervising attorney for the Cook County Public Guardian's office, which represents thousands of children in state care, told lawmakers that she has yet to see any tangible consequences stemming from the budget increase. She highlighted the problem of children remaining in psychiatric hospitals beyond medical necessity because there are no appropriate foster placements to take them in. Since July 1, 80 children remained in psychiatric hospitals for longer than needed for an average for 57 days, she said.
"The fiscal year 2020 budget invested long-overdue resources to a department that's been functioning in crisis mode for years, but money alone will not solve all of our problems," Gomez said. "The system needs strategic planning and a sense of urgency to solve some of these issues."