Dying even after warning signs

It’s been a brutal summer. I’m not just talking about the record-breaking heat that fell on us a few days at a time but had us complaining like we had been living in a humidifier all summer.

We were reminded of the brutal summer every time we picked up a paper and the headline read: “Another youth …”

You know how the story went. More youth have been dying in Chicago because of violence than in any other city in our country. These crimes bring up images of guns and chalk-lined streets. But rarely do you envision the crime scene being a bedroom or some other safe haven in people’s homes.

But that’s the story flying under the radar.

In this month’s investigation, “Toying with danger,” Reporter María Inés Zamudio uncovered that, while the state’s homicide rate has dropped 26 percent in the past decade, the number of children who were killed after the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services investigated their cases for abuse or neglect has remained stubbornly unchanged.

Something has to be done about this. Investigators are overworked, state budgets are restricted, and, as a result, children keep dying after an investigation has been conducted.

There is plenty of blame to go around. First, some investigations end as “unfounded.” That could mean a lot of things. It could mean that the claim wasn’t validated. But it could also mean that an investigator wasn’t able to talk to the family or friends to get the information to make a solid determination. That doesn’t necessarily mean the abuse or neglect didn’t take place.

As Zamudio reports, nearly one in five homicides came within one year after a DCFS investigation determined that an allegation of abuse or neglect was “unfounded.”

Another problem is caseload. Of course, this isn’t the first time DCFS has been overloaded with cases. Back in the ’90s, a consent decree was forged between the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and DCFS, requiring several reforms at the agency, including the hiring of more investigators. The goal was to cap their new cases by 15 each month. Two decades later, the goal is still not met. DCFS announced that it plans to increase the number of investigators by January, but as Zamudio points out, at press time, they still average more than 20 cases monthly.

I’m certain that there are myriad other reasons contributing to the problem as well. But these are huge impediments that keep the mortality rate high for these young victims, and something has to be done.

If we don’t, more youth—toddlers and newborns alike—will continue to die at the hands of people who we already knew might be abusing them. And their deaths will be because we acted too late or because key sources in the investigation couldn’t be found or because we chose to fund one program and not another.

I don’t have the solution, but I’m pretty certain that if we do nothing—or if we continue to make cuts to staff and budgets—we won’t have to worry about the number remaining flat. It will likely go up.

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