Fred Pennix recently drove into Chicago's crime-ridden Englewood neighborhood to check on two of the nearly 40 families under his watch as a state child-protection investigator. It was a holiday but, worried about the children's safety, he was going to knock on a few doors anyway.
Pennix figured he would have a better chance of catching the uncooperative adults at home on a day they might not be expecting him. One case involved domestic abuse, the other a mother who wasn't taking proper care of her special-needs children.
"How do I juggle the safety of all these kids and, God forbid, something happens in one of the cases?" said Pennix, an 18-year veteran of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. "It's like Russian roulette."
DCFS is violating critical terms of a 1991 federal consent decree that, among other reforms, set monthly limits on new cases for investigators, the Tribune has learned.
A newspaper analysis using DCFS data shows investigative caseloads are too high across the state, with the biggest trouble spots in Cook County, Chicago's collar counties and southern Illinois.
Investigators say they should handle about 24 cases at any one time, but the number is often in the 40s and climbing, the newspaper determined.
Worries about heavy caseloads and other issues come amid the deaths of two Chicago-area children that raised concerns about whether DCFS investigators missed crucial warning signs and didn't do enough to protect the victims. After examining records, the Tribune has reported on apparent missteps and communication breakdowns in both deaths.
Kendall Marlowe, a DCFS spokesman, said it would be a mistake to attribute such tragedies to current worker caseloads.
"It's too easy of an explanation," Marlowe said. "If that were the only reason, then hiring more workers would solve all problems, and it won't."
But Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris and other experts say heavy work requirements are bound to have an impact.
"If investigators are this overworked, they're going to make errors," Harris said. "It's a recipe for disaster."
Benjamin Wolf, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said the caseloads are the worst in several years. As the ACLU's lead counsel in a federal lawsuit that resulted in the consent decree, Wolf said he will take DCFS back to court if it doesn't lower caseloads soon.
"It's impossible to function at this level," said Wolf, looking over a recent monthly update that showed some investigators juggling 60 or more pending cases. "I think there's a serious risk to children if we don't address this soon."
Officials with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which represents many DCFS employees, said the agency has failed to fill hundreds of funded vacancies. DCFS officials said they had fewer than 60 openings.
The staffing shortages come as the newly named director of DCFS, Richard Calica, takes over during a sobering state fiscal crisis.
Calica agreed that caseload levels are too high and said he has started taking steps to reduce them. He has frozen hiring in new positions unrelated to child protection and said he plans to add 125 front-line positions, partly through new hires and partly through shifting agency workers.
"I don't believe safety will be compromised," Calica said. "We will continue to manage our cases in such a way that we will not take unrealistic risks with the lives or the safety of children based on economics."
High DCFS caseloads raise red flags
Agency violates limits on cases for investigators, Tribune learns
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