Child abuse cases fall in Cook

  • By GERRY SMITH
  • Medill News Service
  • January 20, 2006 @ 4:40 PM
The horror stories had come in quick succession. A mother who was mentally ill killed her 3-year-old son, shortly after he was returned to her foster care. A little more than a year later, 19 children were found living in a filthy, rodent-infested Chicago apartment.

That was almost 13 years ago, when the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services was the subject of scathing criticism.

Now, the agency is singing a very different tune.

The number of cases handled by DCFS in Cook County has plummeted, which means more children are finding permanent homes. According to a report published on the DCFS Web site this month, the total number of cases in the department fell from 14,136 in 2004 to 13,485 at the end of 2005.

The drop of cases last year follows a downward trend in Cook County over the last decade. In 1995, the caseload for Cook County was estimated as high as 58,000 children, according to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

"Now, you don't have the majority of kids sitting in foster placement for years," said Stuart Holt, a private attorney who represents parents in child protection cases. "[DCFS] is terminating parental rights much earlier than they have in the past."

Diane Geraghty, director of the Civitas ChildLaw Center at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, cited the creation of the Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997 as a big reason for the reduction of cases. The bill directed agencies like DCFS to terminate parental rights for children removed from home for more than 15 months, and provided financial incentives to increase the number of adoptions for waiting children.

But Cook County's progress has not been matched by the rest of the state, the report showed. Lawrence Grazian, director of policy initiatives with Cook County Juvenile Court, cited the changing culture of drug abuse, a common factor in child welfare cases, as a possible reason. As fewer parents were involved with drug abuse, they were allowed to keep their children.

"The trouble in Cook County [during the mid-1990s] occurred during the crack cocaine epidemic," Grazian said. Now, as Cook County's cases have fallen, methamphetamines abuse in rural Illinois has caused the numbers of DCFS cases downstate to remain nearly unchanged over the last four years.

But the drop has raised questions with the Cook County Public Guardian's office. If the case number has gone down, has the overall quality of child care gone up? "Certainly the number of cases for each caseworker has come down over the years," said Yvonne Zehr, who works in the Cook County Public Guardian's Office. "But I have not seen the quality of care go up."

Zehr said DCFS has become less inclined to bring cases of at-risk children to court. Instead, she said the agency has too frequently used "safety plans," which place at-risk children with a relative temporarily rather than terminating parental rights.

Grazian said because the burden of cases has been reduced for DCFS employees, "horrible fact situations," like the high-profile incidents of more than a decade ago, will become more visible. This could mean more attention

will be given to an individual family and its problems.

"On the whole, you are seeing fewer instances in which the initial removal of the child [from the family] was unnecessary," Grazian said. "If we can do something to prevent the trauma of removal [from the family], but still preserve the child's safety, that's a good thing."

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