Budget cuts that are often cited as a reason for failures by the state agency charged with protecting children have fallen disproportionately on front-line child abuse and neglect workers, a Tribune analysis has found.
Less than half the agency's overall staff consists of investigators and caseworkers who are in direct contact with children, a lower proportion than those found in at least three other Midwest states, according to the newspaper's analysis.
As the agency cut abuse and neglect investigators by about 12 percent and caseworker positions by 16 percent, administrative jobs were trimmed only 7 percent. DCFS increased the number of supervisors for front-line employees, even as it was slashing their direct reports.
The analysis also found that nearly 40 percent of DCFS investigators employed five years ago are no longer in those positions, a turnover rate higher than any other job in the agency.
The Tribune in recent months has examined troubling child deaths, exposed the agency's failure to conduct timely inspections and background checks at day care facilities and showed that a majority of callers to the child abuse hotline don't initially get through to someone who could dispatch an investigator.
The newspaper reported that DCFS investigators often have caseloads double what they should be, and that the agency is in violation of critical terms of a 1991 federal consent decree that sets monthly limits on new cases for investigators.
DCFS Director Richard Calica said the findings reaffirm what he discovered when he took over seven months ago: The agency isn't operating as efficiently as it could.
Calica pointed to "redundant levels of decision-makers" that prompted him to start negotiations with union officials to reassign 250 middle management and administrative positions to more critical jobs.
Before he got too far, the General Assembly took action of its own.
Fueled by the perception among some lawmakers that DCFS had administrative fat, the Legislature approved a $50 million budget cut in May that would require laying off 375 workers, or about 12 percent of the agency's workforce.
Gov. Pat Quinn has opposed the cut and vowed to use savings from closing state prisons to push lawmakers into restoring the agency's funding this fall.
Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee for Human Services, stands by the decision, saying DCFS has long "dodged the bullet" of deep budget cuts because of the federal consent decree, and lawmakers no longer could spare the agency.
"Some members of the committee kept saying, 'Why do my constituents call me up and tell me this agency is nothing but monitors monitoring monitors monitoring monitors?'" said Feigenholtz, a North Side Democrat.
"We went in there and basically sent the department a message: Do more with less and revisit your core mission of improving the lives of these children."
The front line
The workers who directly carry out that mission are the investigators who respond to complaints of abuse and neglect and the child welfare caseworkers who follow up with children after that investigation.
In 2011, just 48 percent of DCFS workers were investigators and caseworkers.
Add their direct supervisors — who sign off on decisions made by the front-line staffers and sometimes intervene in cases — and that percentage rises to 63 percent of total DCFS staff.
Front-line workers bear brunt of DCFS staff cuts
Caseworkers, investigators make up fewer than half of all employees, but ranks of supervisors have risen since '06
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.
The Baltimore Sun encourages civil dialogue related to our stories; you must register and log-in to our site in order to participate. We reserve the right to remove any user and to delete comments that violate our Terms of Service. By commenting, you agree to these terms. Please flag inappropriate comments.