When a child leaves foster care in Illinois and is returned to their parents’ home, child welfare workers are supposed to fill out home safety checklists to document the home is, indeed, safe for that child.
That’s been the law in Illinois for one year, and it’s such a sensible requirement for the safety of previously abused or neglected children — making sure there are working smoke detectors in place and that firearms are secured, for instance — that we can’t understand why the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services hasn’t figured out how to do it.
The mandate has been in place since 2021, when legislators passed Ta’Naja’s Law, a bill named after a Decatur 2-year-old who died of malnutrition and hypothermia in February 2019, six months after being returned to her mother.
Ta’Naja’s Law requires that safety checklists be filled out both before and after a child is returned to his or her parents, and that aftercare — such as mental health counseling and getting connected to food pantries or other services — be provided to parents for six months.
Yet a damning state audit found that DCFS has yet to implement the law, as a Capitol News Illinois story published recently in the Sun-Times reports.
Like state Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, the sponsor of Ta’Naja’s Law, we’re sadly unsurprised at the news, given the agency’s long history of dysfunction and failure. “This is what we feared all along was happening,” Scherer said, “but this audit just confirms it.”
Even so, what the audit found was stunning: DCFS was unable to provide home safety checklists in 192 of 195 cases studied. Which means that, in the year since the reforms were put in place, child welfare workers filled out three — three — such checklists on nearly 200 children returned to their parents’ homes after being in foster care following abuse or neglect allegations.
As for aftercare, the audit surveyed 50 cases and found that 29 did not have at least six months of documented services.
There is a sliver of good news: The chronically understaffed agency now has more employees than in December 2021, when the audit was conducted. A DCFS spokesperson said the agency is aggressively working to improve and says outdated information systems limited the agency ability to track new requirements.
Maybe. But if need be, putting pen to paper and filing that paperwork safely away would have at least left a record for posterity — and down the road, maybe saved a child’s life.
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