Child Welfare Costing Illinois Taxpayer's Millions by Elaine Hopkins

© 2005 Elaine Hopkins, Peoria Journal Star

Reproduced under the Fair Use exception of 17 USC § 107 for noncommercial, nonprofit, and educational use.


 

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Index

Introduction

By the numbers

Operating DCFS

Advocates say parents rights are lacking

County officials don't know what the court part of the local child protection system costs

DCFS and the courts are sometimes at odds, advocates say

Area groups calling for DCFS policy changes

Critics question how child welfare deals with minorities and poor


 

Introduction

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Average cost per child in the system is $14,855

October 2, 2005 — The child protection system in Peoria and Tazewell counties costs taxpayers millions each year — the exact number is unknown. The total may be $25 million yearly, or more, when the cost of every part of the complex system is included.

According to information from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, based on a Freedom of Information request, the average cost per year per child in the system is $14,855 to pay agencies and foster parents.

That figure does not include medical care, counseling or court proceedings, the agency stated.

After a week of requests, DCFS was not able to provide an official to speak about the agency, saying key leaders were not available.

As of August 5, 2005, there were 607 children in nonrelative foster care in Peoria and Tazewell counties. DCFS did not provide the number of children in foster care staying with relatives. At the average cost, that's $9 million a year paid to agencies and foster parents for these children.

Last year, an additional $9.3 million went to families to subsidize the adoption of children whose parents lost their parental rights in the two counties.

Six private agencies in 2004 operating in the two counties had contracts totaling $82 million for all programs they run for DCFS. Some operate statewide, others only locally.

This money goes to protect children, roughly half of whom are removed from their homes even though they have not been harmed physically.

DCFS says that of 173 children taken into protective custody last year in Peoria and Tazewell counties, 53 percent in each county were taken for risk of harm instead of actual harm.

Family advocates criticize child welfare officials as being too zealous in some instances, though they believe the system has improved lately.

In 2000, Mary Hixenbaugh of Peoria was a founder of Keeping Families Together, one of three local family advocacy groups now keeping watch over DCFS and the court system.

After five years of meetings with DCFS officials, some progress has occurred, Hixenbaugh said.

"We got rid of caseworkers that were problem-makers, and an investigator who was sexually harassing clients," she said. A difficult top administrator also left.

Her analysis of what went wrong with the system focuses on money. Financial incentives for adoption, approved by Congress in the 1990s, ruined the system, Hixenbaugh said. "It went haywire."

With money on the table, agencies expanded definitions of abuse and neglect, she said. "They were snatching kids. The system backlogged."

For example, mothers who were victims of domestic violence lost their children to the system even though the children were never abused by either partner. That's still happening, Hixenbaugh said.

The domestic violence issue illustrates the complexities facing those involved in the child protection system.

Police and others are required to notify child protection authorities of domestic violence. They reason that mothers who allow their children, including infants, to witness domestic violence or be near it place them in danger.

Then some unintended consequences kicked in.

"The word is out," said Jim Ryman, a member of Keeping Families Together. Women are now afraid to call the police, he said.

"They would rather take the beating to keep the police out of the home," Hixenbaugh said.

Martha Herm, executive director of the Center for Prevention of Abuse, said, "we have anecdotal evidence from people calling the hotline (who say) 'I don't want to call the police. I'm too afraid of losing my kids.'"

Herm said every situation is complicated, but in general abusers are unlikely to change without therapy.

"Research shows it gets more severe and the violent parts happen more often over time," she said.

Judges err on the side of caution, even though they know taking a child away from parents is traumatic, she said.

"An atmosphere of abuse is not good for children," said a senior public defender, Louis Milot.

But some women need a long time to realize that they must separate themselves from an abuser, he said. "What is the best way to encourage a victim to do that?" he asked.


 

By the numbers

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• Estimated annual cost of the child protection system in Peoria and Tazewell counties: $25 million.

• Paid to families for adoption assistance: $9.3 million.

• Paid to private agencies and foster parents for 607 children in foster care, at average yearly cost of $14,855: $9 million

• Cost for medical care, counseling, other services: unknown.

• Cost for eight court-appointed lawyers in Peoria County: about $300,000.

• Cost of prosecutors and judges: unknown.

• Number of children taken into protective custody last year by DCFS in Peoria and Tazewell counties: 173.

• Percentage not harmed but considered at risk for harm, in each county: 53 percent.

• Number of private agencies contracted to work with DCFS last year in both counties: six.

• Total amount paid to them: $82 million, though some do work in other counties (also, the agencies provide other services besides foster care).

• Number of complaints DCFS received on these six agencies last year: 114.

• Percent of African-American children in Peoria County: 25 percent.

• Percent of black children in nonrelative foster care in Peoria County in August: 63 percent.

• Percent of African-American children in Tazewell County: 0.5 percent.

• Percent in nonrelative foster care in Peoria County in August: 25 percent.

• Estimated percent of poor families in the child protection system: 90 percent.

 

Sources: Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, court officials.

 

Operating DCFS

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Here is the way the child protection system of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the court system that supports it should operate, according to Illinois law and family advocates:

1. Child is removed from the home.

2. Within 48 hours, a shelter care hearing must be held before a judge to determine where the child will be placed.

3. Within 90 days, an adjudication hearing, the trial, should be held. If the judge finds abuse or neglect, more decisions about what happens to the child and parents are made. A one-time 30-day extension can be granted.

4. Within 30 more days, a disposition hearing should be held. Advocates say that unless severe abuse is present, children should be sent home with services to the parent.

 

Sources : Illinois Bar Association, Keeping Families Together.


 

Advocates say parents rights are lacking

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Ask the family advocates about the court system that backs up the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and you' Illinois get an earful.

The system is overloaded, they say. It can take six months to get a court date. The average case lasts two years.

Due process is sacrificed along with justice, running up other costs in the system and traumatizing children and families, they say.

"Parents have far fewer rights than criminals," said activist Doris Morgan of the advocacy group Keeping Families Together. "But what is decided is your child's future."

Most cases should be finalized within two months instead of two years, Morgan said, unless there is obvious physical or sexual abuse.

"If you kill somebody, you get better (legal) representation," said Laurie Yaeger of Keeping Families Together.

County officials don't know what the court part of the local child protection system costs

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"It would be very difficult to determine," said John Flynn, Peoria County's court administrator.

The cost of juvenile court services is lumped into other costs, said Jennifer Zinkel of Peoria County's administrative services office.

Every case involves at least three lawyers, sometimes more, and a judge.

The county has a contract with lawyer Tim Penn to provide public defender services for all court cases. Penn did not respond to a request for comment.

Five public defenders represent the parents. All are independent contractors with no benefits. They are paid $3,000 monthly plus $400 to file appeals. Three other lawyers represent the children.

With heavy caseloads, the lawyers waive time deadlines for their own convenience, and parents don't even realize it, the advocates say. The cases drag on.

Flynn said, "some of the delays are attributable to making sure (all) parties are properly notified."

No one has studied the local system to see whether it could be more efficient, he added.

DCFS and the courts are sometimes at odds, advocates say

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Latonya Harris' seven children, ages 5 to 14, have been in the system since 1999 because she was accused of spanking a 5-year-old, she said. But the criminal charge against her was dismissed, she said.

Harris said DCFS wants her children returned, but a judge won't agree. "He wasn't paying attention" to the case, she said. "When I try to talk to the judge, he does not respond to me."

The siblings are separated in several foster homes, she said.

Morgan said children in the system for a long time may develop "reactive detachment syndrome," which means they have lost the ability to bond with anyone. She told of a boy who spent his childhood in 11 foster homes over four years.

DCFS paid for his intensive, live-in therapy to recover, before he could go home to his mother, she said.

Louis Milot, a senior public defender who represents parents in the system, said, "I don't think enough time and effort has been spent to determine why people are coming into the system and what can be done to prevent that."

State Rep. Mary Flowers, a Chicago Democrat who spoke at a recent Peoria meeting of the advocacy group Family Does Matter, said public defenders should be paid more, and more need to be hired to cut caseloads.

Milot said his job is supposed to be part time, but his caseload of about 150 cases can be overwhelming. He would rather see a cut in caseload than a raise, he said.

Flowers also would consider legislation to remove immunity from civil lawsuits for those involved in the system, she said, to promote more checks and balances and interest private lawyers in taking child protection cases.

"Your child can be taken away (in court) because of hearsay," she said, but not "your dog or your car."

In Peoria County, a DCFS grant-funded pilot program called Family to Family aims to cut back on children being removed from their homes by setting up team meetings before court hearings take place.

Bessie Rush, who operates the program, said it began in 2001 when Peoria County was second in the state behind Chicago in removing children from their homes. "They were taking up to 500 children a year," she said.

That's been cut to 153 last year, according to DCFS figures.

Dozens of community volunteers now work with families in the system, she said to keep children in their homes or reunite them with families.

"It's made a great difference," said Mary Hixenbaugh of Keeping Families Together. She wants the program expanded to Tazewell County.

But the court system can and does overrule the decisions made at the team meetings, she said.

Crystal Clark, of the group African American Children and Family Rights Enforcement, said the system isn't working as planned. "I've got a list of people who say the (team meetings) were held after their kids were removed," she said.

Parents who can't or won't follow intricate rules that are sometimes unreasonable lose their children permanently, Hixenbaugh said.

She and others in her group tell stories of distraught parents whose parental rights were being terminated because they didn't show up at a 9 AM court hearing, even though the paperwork said the hearing was at 1 PM.

Or because they missed a required meeting due to serious illness.

Becky Brown with Keeping Families Together said the overall system has improved somewhat but needs more improvement.

"It's not perfect yet," she said.


 

Area groups calling for DCFS policy changes

Critics question how child welfare deals with minorities and poor

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On a stifling July day, a woman and her father picketed the Peoria office of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Their sunburned faces dripped with sweat.

The woman's sign read: "DCFS will lie in court to keep your child for money." Passing cars honked in sympathy.

A black female pedestrian in front of the office commented, "Ain't that the truth," and kept walking.

On the same day, Crystal Clark and a small group of African-Americans stopped by the office of Peoria County State's Attorney Kevin Lyons. They wanted to present a petition to Lyons that they said had hundreds of signatures and discuss their grievances about the child protection system in Peoria.

They waited an hour, but no one would take their petition or speak with them.

Later they mailed the petition to Lyons but never heard from the office, Clark said.

Clark, 48, an African-American, said the system oppresses poor people and especially black parents and foster parents. Local officials ignore both DCFS policies and state laws, she claims.

Since that hot day, Clark's group, African-American Children and Family Rights Enforcement, and two other groups, all with leaders who have been involved with the child protection system, continue to meet and protest. The leaders don't get along, but their complaints about the system are the same.

Grass-roots groups are not alone in their concerns. Bamani Obadele, a high-profile black minister and Chicago activist who recently left DCFS after overseeing minority affairs for two years, said the agency has improved but the system still has problems, especially in the Peoria area.

"It's a class issue. Poor whites and poor blacks don't stand a chance," said Obadele, who left DCFS to pursue other interests but is now under investigation by the agency for financial irregularities, the Chicago Tribune reported Saturday.

"I don't believe the system itself is racist," but most of the cases involve minorities, he said. "Why is that? Is it that black people love their children less? I think we need a real discussion about the face of child welfare."

State Rep. Mary Flowers, a Chicago Democrat, has introduced reform legislation for the child protection system. Illinois has one of the worst records in the United States for using family reunification funds to keep families together, she said.

"A lot of children are separated from their families because their families are poor," she said.

The statistics show African-American children making up only 25 percent of the children in Peoria County but 63 percent of the foster children not in the care of relatives, according to DCFS figures.

In Tazewell County, fewer than 1 percent of children are black, but black children make up 25 percent of the foster children not in the care of relatives.

Only 19 percent of all children are from poor families in Peoria County, and 10 percent in Tazewell County. But most of the children and parents caught up in the child welfare system are poor. Court officials estimate the poor make up 90 percent of the cases.

Crystal Clark has asked the FBI to investigate civil rights violations in the Peoria system and recently urged U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, to push them to do it. She's also spoken with a Chicago lawyer about a class-action lawsuit.

Recently, Clark and her group picketed at the Pekin office of state Sen. George Shadid and state Rep. Mike Smith. They want Shadid to call a public hearing with sworn testimony from people upset with the child protection system.

Shadid was out of town, his aide Peggy Meisinger said, adding she has presented material to Clark on how the group can set up its own hearing.

Several Pekin residents stopped to talk with the group and expressed sympathy with its cause.

Clark became involved after her two grandchildren were taken from the home she shared with her daughter and the children, two years ago.

The children were never harmed, she said, but were taken in retaliation because she complained about a caseworker with a private agency who entered her home without knocking and stole videotapes.

The children then were abused in four foster homes, including one that the city of Peoria found unfit for human habitation, Clark said, offering documents as proof.

Last year DCFS found that eight foster parents committed abuse in the two counties. Sixteen children were affected.

Clark's grandchildren then were placed on a farm with white foster parents in Peoria County, far from other family members, their African-American culture and their community, Clark said.

DCFS statistics show 17 percent of African-American children were placed in white foster parent homes in August in Peoria County. Last spring the agency conducted a campaign to recruit black foster parents but could not supply any figures on how many were recruited.

Clark said she surrendered the children because police were present. But she later learned that no court order had been issued or independent investigation done concerning the removal of her grandchildren.

A week ago Clark and her group met with l st District Councilman Clyde Gulley to complain about police involvement with DCFS. Gulley said he will look into the allegations.

Clark has questioned the role of Peoria police in backing up caseworkers who are removing children from homes and schools. Sometimes, she says, without a court order or the threat of imminent harm as the law requires. People are intimidated into surrendering the children because of police presence, she said.

DCFS statistics indicate the paperwork usually is in place. It reported that last year all but two cases had the proper paperwork in Peoria County, and all had the documents in Tazewell County.

The leader of another group, Gerisa Eppinger, an African-American, also raised the police issue at a recent meeting where two Peoria police officers were present. Eppinger's group is called Family Does Matter.

People who question surrendering a child are threatened with arrest, Eppinger said. "The only reason for police to be there is intimidation," she added.

But the two officers defended the police presence. Peoria police Lt. Philip Korem said the officers are present as peacekeepers.

His colleague Capt. Mike Scally said "If the DCFS calls and says they're needed, I don't see that as intimidating. These are situations that can be volatile."

Flowers said Illinois is seeing the negative fallout from previous years when too many children were taken from their families and placed in foster homes, leaving some children angry and traumatized.

When they become adults, "they are incarcerated," she said. "It's a horrific thing the DCFS has done to destroy families."

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| EJF Home | Find Help | Join the EJF | Comments? | Get EJF newsletter |

 

| Families And Marriage Book | Abstract | Family site map | Family index |

 

| Chapter 8 — Child "Protective" Services —Who's Minding The Minders? |

| Next — Names On Child Protection List Hard To Remove by Lisa Demer |

| Back — Kentucky Unjustly Terminates Parental Rights For Federal Money by Valarie Honeycutt Spears |


 

Added February 1, 2006

Last modified 4/11/15