Safe at home?

Standing at the front door of her two-story home on a quiet, residential Oak Park street, Kimberly Stevens kissed her three foster children goodbye on a sun-drenched April morning in 2006, telling them she would see them later.

Stevens did not know that “later” would turn out to be more than two-and-a-half years for her foster son and more than three for her two foster daughters.

She did not know that the boy would spend time in a psychiatric hospital and would return to her care a shadow of his former exuberant self.

She did not know that she was about to enter a legal process that would cost her thousands of dollars and consume nearly all of her waking time and energy.

All Stevens knew was that it had been a typical morning of rousing the children, dressing them, feeding them and preparing them for school. She was a little surprised when Janelle, the case worker from the child welfare agency she had been working with, showed up and offered to take the children. Janelle had done that many times before, so she thought little of it.

When Stevens’ 12-year-old biological daughter came home after school that day, she asked where the other children were. Stevens did not know.

She called the case manager and her supervisor. Neither answered.

But soon enough, she learned what had happened.

The children had been taken. The first reason given was that she was going through a divorce, even though she had previously disclosed that information.

The allegations came later. She was told that a call had come into the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services hotline. It alleged that her daughter had abused two foster children.

Sexually.

Shame and humiliation churned within Stevens. Yet, as she started to talk with neighbors, those feelings morphed to anger and then outrage. She decided to take action.

A native of Chicago’s West Side, Stevens is black. So is the father of the three foster children whom she had hoped to adopt.

So, too, are more than half the Cook County children about whom allegations of child sexual abuse are made.

Despite studies showing that black children are not statistically more likely to be sexually abused than white children, African-American families in Cook County are nearly twice as likely to be subjected to sexual abuse investigations than the share of black children in the county’s population, according to a Chicago Reporter analysis of DCFS records of about 110,000 child sexual abuse cases from 2005 to 2009.

Yet, when DCFS investigates these allegations, a lower percentage of them are found to be valid than those about white and Latino children, the analysis shows. This means that thousands of black children and their families during the past five years have gone through an investigative process and have endured difficulty similar to what Stevens, her daughter and the three foster children have experienced.

The situation could worsen, as the department’s less-seasoned investigative workforce navigates an increased workload under budget cuts.

Asked about the Reporter’s findings, experts offered various explanations that fell mostly into two divergent camps.

One side argued that the disproportionate number of allegations about black children was the result of higher levels of attention paid to them and their families than youth of other racial and ethnic backgrounds.

The other side countered that it was more a function of the poverty into which many black children are born, pointing out that the rate of sexual abuse allegations is higher in poorer communities.

But both sides agreed on this much: These investigations can take a toll on the children and families involved.

“Child abuse investigations are enormously traumatic for children and their families,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, an Alexandria, Va.-based organization that works to change public policy about child abuse and family preservation. “There is a far greater trauma if the child is removed from the home. For all those reasons, it is not better to provide additional scrutiny based on little more than an anonymous call and a case worker’s guess. All that time wasted on trivial investigations is stolen from the children who are actually in need.”

Erwin McEwen, director of DCFS, said his agency is in what amounts to a Catch-22. In order to keep the state’s children safe and to respond to the horrible sexual acts on youth, the agency must encourage as many people as possible to call the hotline. But in doing so, the hotline is likely to receive many calls that are without merit and that drain the department’s tight resources.

Operating with occasionally staggering caseloads and against a backdrop of historic public distrust, the investigators often put themselves at risk of physical harm and act with the knowledge that sexual abuse is underreported and difficult to prove. Yet, in conducting those investigations, the department almost inevitably inflicts trauma similar to what Stevens experienced, especially when no abuse can be reasonably proven to have taken place.

“There will probably always be trauma, but we are working to make investigations less intrusive” said McEwen in acknowledging the system’s need for improvement.

Dorothy Roberts, a law professor at Northwestern University, agreed, noting that the brunt of these practices are borne most heavily in certain neighborhoods. Racial disparities persist despite the reduction in the number of children in DCFS custody from more than 50,000 in the mid ’90s to less than 16,000 today, she said. This includes children removed from homes for sexual abuse. In Cook County, from 2005 to 2009, black children were removed from their homes at twice the rate of Latino children and three times the rate of white children.

“It still is a huge impact on a handful of neighborhoods in the city,” Roberts said. “The numbers are less, but the impact is still strong in a few poor, black neighborhoods.”

A person dials 1-800-25-ABUSE. A worker answers the phone and listens to allegations of abuse or neglect. If there is enough specific information, a report is taken.

From 2005 to 2009, about 110,000 allegations of child sexual abuse came into the hotline, which the state maintains in compliance with federal law. The alleged abuse fell into five categories: sexually transmitted diseases, sexual penetration, sexual exploitation, sexual molestation and substantial risk of sexual injury.

Black children were the subject of more than half of 29,600 calls alleging abuse in Cook County.

In 2008, the county’s 358,900 black residents younger than 18 made up 27 percent of the 1.3 million residents of the same age group, according to a Reporter analysis of census data. Yet 15,400 of 29,700, or 52 percent, of the calls from 2005 to 2009 were about black children.

By contrast, white youth constituted 33 percent of the young people and just 27 percent of the calls.

This disparity stemmed in part from the calls made by people like social workers, police officers, school personnel and physicians, who are required to report suspicions of abuse and neglect.

Law enforcement and social service workers made up the largest group of these “mandated reporters,” together accounting for more than 30 percent of all calls made. Black children constituted 50 percent of the children about whom calls were made by people in these agencies–”a figure that Carl Bell, director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago, attributed to higher levels of attention on black families and higher levels of interaction with police.

Brad Stolbach, a licensed clinical psychologist and director of the Chicago Child Trauma Center at La Rabida Children’s Hospital, said mandated reporters’ unintentional bias could also play a role in the overrepresentation of black children. “It would be silly to think that there’s no system of institutional unconscious bias that might influence the decision of the reporter,” he said. “It shouldn’t surprise anybody that people in America would be more likely to make reports to authorities based on racial and economic status.”

Police officers made the highest number of calls, more than 5,400, alleging abuse, but the Chicago Police Department would not comment on the reasons for these numbers.

Liane Jackson, spokeswoman for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, attributed the high numbers to the fact that police are the first responders whenever these crimes are committed. She added that the office patrols unincorporated Cook County and predicted that the statistics for those areas would be different than the countywide data.

“People of color are more scrutinized, have more surveillance and are thought to be doing wrong than anyone else,” said Bell of the University of Illinois at Chicago. “That’s a stereotype. Some have suggested the police hunt black teenagers and black youth to find them doing wrong because they know that they’re doing wrong. They go and find them. That’s kind of easy to do. That’s responsible for all the hotline calls.”

The scrutiny was not only external, though.

Twenty-eight percent of calls about black children came from nonmandated reporters–”people like relatives and neighbors who were not required to call the hotline. This was higher than the 10 percent of calls about Asian children, the 16 percent of calls about Latino children and the 18 percent of calls about white children.

In all, 63 percent of the 3,700 calls made by relatives and neighbors were made about black children.

Bell said this higher percentage comes from well-meaning people who want to protect children from being abused without getting directly involved themselves. “There’s a social fabric,” he said. “Neighbors and relatives are seeing problems in a family but are not stepping into the family to help. They’re dropping a dime on the family.”

Bell added that the higher percentage of calls from relatives and neighbors may also stem from more contact with, and knowledge about, DCFS than people from other backgrounds. This greater familiarity with the department and concern about the children’s safety may trump people’s historic distrust of the agency, he said.

The hotline’s use of an anonymous reporting system is another double-edged tool in child abuse prevention and redress. While the ability to report abuse without giving one’s name can be an incentive for people to speak up, that same quality also lends itself to less detail for the investigator and to the hotline occasionally being used for other purposes like settling scores in acrimonious custody battles or even disputes between neighbors.

Close to 2,200 of the 31,400 calls in Cook County from 2005 to 2009 were made anonymously, the fourth-highest total among different groups of callers. But of these calls, just 6 percent were ultimately deemed valid after investigation. The figure was the lowest of the 30 types of callers placing at least 100 calls during the five-year period.

In ZIP codes where African Americans made up more than 80 percent of the population, anonymous calls had a particularly low rate of allegations being deemed valid. In ZIP codes 60621, 60637 and 60644, which cover parts of South Side neighborhoods such as Englewood, Hyde Park and Woodlawn as well as the West Side’s Austin, DCFS deemed just two of the more than 200 anonymous calls as valid.

The countywide rate for all calls deemed valid was 24 percent, with 45 percent of the 103 allegations made by “juvenile officers” being substantiated.

Valerie McDaniels, DCFS regional administrator for child protection for Central Cook County and a former investigator, said anonymous calls can be harder than others to find valid because there is less access to additional information other than what the caller leaves on the hotline.

Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform said changing the call line from anonymous to confidential could improve the system. “There should be a high threshold before you launch and substantiate an investigation and remove a child,” he said. “Anonymous reports are the least accurate. Not only will you avoid this harm, you will free up resources to look into the real harm,” he said.

But others were less convinced.

“It gives the safety of call, but [we] don’t know if I’m mad at you. People will drop a dime in a minute,” Bell said. “It’s a good thing because someone’s watching, but it’s a bad thing because in many cases it’s not legitimate.”

“If you didn’t have anonymous, nobody would call,” Bell said.

After the initial report is filed, an investigation is triggered, and one of the state’s hundreds of investigators is assigned to find out what happened. While conducting their inquiries, investigators use the Child Endangerment Risk Assessment Protocol to determine whether the child is in immediate danger and needs to be removed from the home right away.

Richard H. Calica, executive director of the Juvenile Protection Association, an agency in Chicago that seeks to promote children’s healthy development, helped design the protocol. It calls for the investigator to use an evidence-based approach to evaluate a child’s immediate safety should that youth remain in the home. The investigator must then present the results of his or her assessment to a supervisor.

Calica acknowledged that accurately forecasting future behavior is hard to do. “Our capacity to predict the future stinks,” he said, emphasizing that this difficulty is independent of whatever tool is used to assess children’s safety.

For his part, McEwen acknowledged that the department’s investigators are not exempt from racial and class bias, and explained that the department has conducted anti-racism trainings to try to reduce it.

But further training may still be necessary to eliminate all investigator bias, according to Diane Redleaf, executive director of the Family Defense Center, an organization in Chicago that advocates justice for children in the child welfare system. “The system is fraught with racial, class and gender bias,” she said. “I would say that the decisions are being made on racial grounds, independent of the merits.”

After the initial investigation, DCFS has 60 days to complete a more thorough investigation, according to the department’s procedure. But in a 2008 report commissioned by DCFS, Tamara Fuller, director at the University of Illinois Child and Family Research Center, wrote that more than one in 10 investigations in Illinois took more than 60 days.

Roi Montalvo, DCFS regional administrator for child protection for Cook County North, said the delay stemmed, in part, from cases being more complex than in the past and from investigators having more potential areas of harm to investigate.

Investigators are slated to take in about 150 new cases per year, but Montalvo said investigators do not turn away cases after they have reached their monthly limit.

McDaniels said a 2006 internal reorganization led to fewer investigators being in central Cook County as part of a departmental strategy to allocate investigators where a higher number of cases were. This led to the office’s losing investigators and being replaced by less-experienced ones.

That figure could rise in coming years, as the number of inspectors at the child protection division has seen a 16 percent decrease from 2008 to 2010, according to a Reporter analysis of DCFS data.

For Stevens’ family, the months of separation meant her foster children had to establish new bonds in a new home and to give up the bond they had established in Stevens’ home. The boy did not adjust well in the second foster home, so he was placed in a psychiatric hospital–”a searing experience that contributed to his difficulty in trusting people.

In Stevens’ case, it took many months for an investigator to come after the children had been removed. The man was neither aggressive nor hostile, she remembered. He actually seemed a bit sheepish.

Even with the investigator’s restrained demeanor, Stevens absorbed a clear message. “It seemed like a conviction without being a conviction,” she said. “I thought we were innocent until proven guilty, but it felt guilty.”

Eventually, an investigator, in conjunction with a team of professionals from the State’s Attorney’s Office, police department and medical providers who meet at Child Advocacy Centers, determines whether an allegation is credible.

In Cook County, just 20 percent of the calls alleging abuse of black children were substantiated by the department’s investigation process. This figure was lower than the 23 percent of allegations about white children and the 32 percent of allegations about Latino children.

Lisa Aronson Fontes, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of “Child Abuse and Culture,” pointed out that a failure to find an allegation valid does not necessarily mean that no abuse occurred but rather that the investigators were unable to find sufficient evidence to prove it. “Families with allegations that are unfounded are different than those with no abuse,” she said.

Substantiated cases lead to a range of possible actions, including the temporary removal of the child from the home. Removal of black children occurred at more than twice the rate of Latino children and three times the rate of white children.

In December 2008, more than two-and-a-half years after the temporary removal of the children from her home, Stevens had the oldest child, the boy, return. She still had not seen the girls. The boy’s first statement to her: “What happened to you? You said you would see us later.”
The boy had changed. Whereas before he exuded a bright spunkiness, he was, and remains, wary and reserved. A heaviness hangs over him.

Stevens said the boy needs an inordinate amount of structure in his day to feel safe and fears being abandoned again.

His sisters remained at the second foster home. Stevens continued to fight to get the girls back–”until February, when she decided to relinquish her claim so that the other foster family could adopt them.

The siblings see each other four hours per month, she said. The girls always ask when they are coming home.

McEwen said the agency is working to reduce the trauma associated with investigations through a variety of measures.

On the top of the docket: a $4 million pilot program starting in November in which families in high-need areas are approached before abuse happens and given financial assistance and other support. McEwen believes this could help build greater trust between the community and the department.

More broadly, he said he wants to continue a shift to a more supportive department in which more children are served and fewer children are taken into protective custody.

But the program and department’s progressive rhetoric do not impress Stevens. “They need a watchdog,” she said.

Contributing: Rebecca Freitag, Samantha Winslow and Brittney Wong

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