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DCFS says calls down during COVID-19 pandemic, but uptick expected as school programs start back up

(The Center Square) – Days after the mother of a dead child from Illinois was sentenced for the boy’s murder in a case where the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services had contact with the family before the child’s death, DCFS officials said the agency stepping up to do its job better.

Joanne Cunningham was sentenced to 35 years in the 2019 death of her son AJ Freund. The family had several interactions with DCFS before the murder. It was one of several high-profile deaths in recent years of children after abuse concerns were brought to the attention of DCFS caseworkers.

One of the audits reviewed Tuesday by the Illinois Legislative Audit Commission was of DCFS for several fiscal years up to 2017. It found the agency didn’t comply with consent decrees on how many investigations can be taken on by investigators. There were also problems completing investigations or following up on certain investigations. It wasn’t clear if services were provided in nearly half of the indicated investigations reviewed in the audit.

Acting DCFS Director Marc Smith told commission member state Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, the agency has done a lot to address those deficiencies. However, Smith said more work needs to be done.

“We are in compliance with most consent decrees and have planning or working forward in consent decrees that we’re still working and addressing,” Smith said.

He noted the increased number of regional managers, new technology and a new training facility in Northern Illinois he said will be announced in the weeks ahead.

Smith also said the shutdown of schools and daycares during the COVID-19 pandemic had a clear impact.

“When the schools closed down and many children were being isolated in their homes we saw a dramatic drop in the calls … that were being made,” Smith said.

He said another outcome of the pandemic was hotline workers were set up to work from home.

“We were able to have fewer opportunities or reasons to have to call people back for investigations,” Smith said. “We were able to take fewer messages. We were able to respond significantly quicker.”

Smith said with summer school programs and some in-person instruction to some degree this fall, he expects the number of calls to increase and the new remote hotline worker set up will increase their ability to field such calls.

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