In late March, a child welfare worker visited the family home of 9-year-old Byron Casanova in Johnston City, Illinois. The social worker expressed concerns about the environment but Byron and his three siblings weren’t removed from the home. Four days later, Byron Casanova committed suicide.
“The Intact worker was there the Tuesday before, noted some things in the house and said he was concerned about the current cleanliness of the house,” said Johnston City Police Chief William Stark.
Stark was called to the house on Saturday, the day that Byron died. He said he saw only one mattress for four children and two adults. There was no crib for Byron’s infant sister.
“When I got there on Saturday, if that's how it looked,I was very concerned about the cleanliness of the house,” Stark said.
Byron Casanova isn’t the only child who has died this year. Three other children, all under the age of five, also have died this year, and that prompted Governor J.B. Pritzker to request a review of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
“Under my administration, we will change the direction of DCFS. I am committing the full force of this office to this work. There is nothing more important to me as governor than getting this right,” Pritzker wrote in a DCFS press release. ... I am committed to carrying out this overhaul as quickly and effectively as possible, and ensuring that DCFS has the necessary resources and support to do that work.”
That statement came three months after two-year-old Ta’naja Barnes froze to death in February. She’d previously been placed in foster care due to neglect from her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, but was returned to them in August of 2018. A hotline call in November said that the family was not complying with services and were medically neglecting Ta’naja because she was not vaccinated. DCFS did not investigate the call because community services were voluntary, and they did not have enough evidence to investigate for neglect. Ta’naja died on February 11, 2019 and an autopsy found signs of physical neglect, starvation, and dehydration.
Another 2-year-old, Ja’hir Gibbons died in March. He first appeared on DCFS’ radar in November of 2017 after an allegation of abuse. In October of 2018 he and a sibling were put in Safe Families Home, a voluntary program to support parents while allowing them to retain custody of their kids. In December of that year, he and his brother returned home. On March 16, 2019, a child welfare worker visited the home, and two days later Ja’hir was beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend.
Then, 5-year-old AJ Freund was beaten to death by his parents for wetting the bed on April 15. AJ’s mother had first been investigated by DCFS in 2012, before AJ was born. In December 2018 a doctor reported potential abuse after AJ said he had been hit with a belt. After the investigation, DCFS said the report was unfounded.
Chapin Hall, a center for policy research based at the University of Chicago, released the report ordered by the governor in May.
It came on the heels of another audit by the Office of the Auditor General. That audit was ordered by the state House in 2017 due to ongoing concerns about DCFS management.
Both reports highlighted the fact that between 2015 and 2017, 102 child deaths reviewed by DCFS for abuse or neglect had prior contact with the agency. Those all involved children who died of suspected abuse or neglect, and had previously been in contact with DCFS.
The reports also found evidence of systemic issues with procedure, policy and culture at the agency. The lack of documentation, investigators being assigned more cases than is legally allowed, and difficulty ensuring families actually receive the services they need are among the highlighted problems.
Illinois Newsroom requested an interview with DCFS about the reports and the concerns raised. The agency answered in an email, where they provided a news release detailing their response to the reports, as well as a timeline regarding the Byron Casanova case.
In Byron’s case, Stark said he didn’t know that Department of Children and Family Services was investigating the Casanova family.
He said police in this community of roughly 3,500 people could have kept a closer eye on the family if they’d known there were concerns about drugs and neglect. If he had, his department would have reached out to confidential sources and neighbors to keep an eye on the family.
“We have tools that we can use if we only would know about it that we needed to put those tools in use,” Stark said.
He’s speaking out about Byron’s case to try and increase communication between child welfare workers and law enforcement. While he and his officers are required to let DCFS know if they suspect children are being abused or neglected, the agency has no requirement to inform police of ongoing investigations.
That, Stark said, leaves his department in the dark, even when they are likely to be the first people to respond to an emergency.
Intact Family Services
Byron’s family was visited by a worker with Intact Family Services — a voluntary program designed to keep children with families while they receive help. But while investigators can refer cases to Intact, families aren’t required to work with them.
That was one of the areas that the report from Chapin Hall examined. Dana Weiner worked on the report.
“Illinois removes fewer kids from their homes than any other child welfare system in the country,” Weiner said. “So that means that we have a pretty high threshold for removing a child.”
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Experts say that removing a child from a situation - even one that’s abusive - is inherently traumatic. Services like Intact are designed to avoid that trauma by helping the family get services - which could range from financial assistance to parenting classes - while keeping kids at home.
But the Chapin Hall report said that DCFS workers they talked to didn’t think that recommending removal would be supported by courts or supervisors.
The report also found that there are issues in what happens when an Intact case is closed because the family refuses to work with child welfare officials. If parents don’t want to cooperate with Intact, there is no system to refer the case back to investigators for further action such as removing a child from the home.
“There's no loop or pathway back to monitoring that case, or revisiting whether the referral was appropriate,” Weiner said.
In a news release, Marc Smith, acting director of DCFS, agreed with the recommendations outlined in the Chapin Hall report, stating that DCFS will “move swiftly on these recommendations. My team has also developed immediate action to keep children safe.”
Smith noted that DCFS is committed to “serving the state’s most vulnerable children – and I know that everyone in the child welfare system wants to do better.”
Many of these issues DCFS is dealing with are familiar to attorneys who have been working to improve the Illinois child welfare system. The department is currently operating under an agreement that is the result of a lawsuit filed in 1988.
That lawsuit was an attempt to address issues faced by children who were removed from their families and placed in foster care. The plaintiffs say that the state failed to make enough of an effort to prevent removing children, and also failed to provide appropriate care for them once they were in the foster care system.
In 1990, the state entered into a consent decree, which laid out a plan to reform the system. It’s legally binding, and if the state doesn’t follow the plan, the case can go back to court.
Heidi Dalenberg is one of the coordinating attorneys on that case. She said caseloads are one issue covered by the consent decree. Dalenberg explained that investigators who are overworked are more likely to miss things and reducing caseloads is essential to fixing problems at DCFS.
“We continue to have a significant problem with inadequate number of child abuse and neglect investigators,” she said.
Investigators are supposed to be assigned no more than 12-15 new cases each month. The Auditor General’s report found that 36% of investigators had more than the allowable number of cases.
Although the Chapin Hall report suggests removal standards should be revisited, Dalenberg said that further study is needed, with an emphasis on examining how investigations are done and if investigators are handling too many cases.
“Until you know, whether or not the investigator who went out to handle a particular investigation, misapplied or misdiagnosed or missed information, or just didn't do the high quality investigation that we expect, and that they're supposed to do, you don't know whether or not the adverse consequences or the tragedies that we've seen recently in the newspaper, are attributable to our removal standards, or a failure of investigation” Dalenberg said.
The DCFS has committed to making many of the recommended changes, Weiner said. A written plan provided by the department included a commitment to changing internal procedures and structures, as well as hiring 43 new investigators.
In Johnston City, Stark hopes that future tragedies like Byron’s can be prevented.
“Their [DCFS] whole goal is of course reunification is to get to get back to the parents,” Stark said. “I appreciate that....I think that needs to be there. But I think that the child's well being needs to be looked at before all else.”
Byron Casanova’s brothers and sister were removed from the home the day Byron died. In June, parents of Byron’s classmates began fundraising for a memorial bench in the local park that his friends and siblings can visit to remember him.