SPRINGFIELD -- Labor officials who represent workers in the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services say staff shortages in that agency have been making it difficult for case workers to keep up with a large volume of reports about abuse and neglect.
But they also say the situation has been getting better in recent months, and they hope state lawmakers will provide additional funding in next year's budget to address the problem further.
"This is a very long-running problem," said Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which represents DCFS workers.
The question about staffing levels arose in the wake of the death of 2-year-old Ta'Naja Barnes, of Decatur, in February.
Her family was the subject of an open case at DCFS. It was officially closed before her death, despite the fact that an agency working on contract with the department had been notified of ongoing concerns about the welfare of children in that family.
Barnes's death, in fact, occurred just weeks after DCFS's Office of Inspector General released its annual report, which included a number of findings related to the death of another child -- 17-month-old Semaj Crosby, who died in Joliet in 2017. The inspector general found agency understaffing had been a significant issue.
"At the time that the toddler's family was involved with the Department, the entire Northern Region of DCFS, including the Field Office, was understaffed (at times as low as 66 percent understaffed), resulting in excessive investigative caseloads," the report stated. "Office caseloads were particularly high in the second half of calendar year 2016. Regional administrators were notifying upper level DCFS management weekly of the ongoing staffing crisis."
But the issue of staffing in the state's child welfare agency has a much longer history, dating back to the 1980s, when lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit against Illinois over staffing issues. They argued understaffing problems were forcing social workers to handle unmanageable caseloads, in turn endangering the welfare of children.
That lawsuit led to a settlement in 1991, known as the "B.H." consent decree that requires DCFS to maintain adequate staffing levels -- enough for each worker to handle roughly 12-13 new cases per month, or about 153 per year.
News reports about Semaj Crosby's death, however, revealed that DCFS under then-Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration was not adhering to the B.H. consent decree requirements. ACLU attorneys went back to federal court to force the Republican governor's administration to comply.
Anne Irving, who works as AFSCME's liaison to DCFS, said that since the lawsuit was reopened, the union, DCFS workers and agency officials began holding quarterly meetings to review staffing levels in all regions throughout the state, and the agency has been hiring staff to fill critical vacancies.
Still, Irving said, staffing shortages continue to exist in some regions of the state -- as measured by the B.H. consent decree -- including the central Illinois region, which was short 12 investigator positions as recently as March 5. But the local office in Decatur, she said, is currently fully staffed.
"There are still staffing shortages in some areas in terms of, for example, investigations, where the focus has been," she said. "That's better in most areas of the state, but there are still shortages in some areas."
Lindall said AFSCME and its members are supporting Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker's budget proposal for DCFS, which calls for funding an additional 126 staff members, including investigators and other front-line child welfare workers.
"We have made a lot of progress in the last year or two," he said. "That has required flexibility on the part of the union and the agency, and there has been some real progress in certain work areas and parts of the state. But some areas still don't have the staff they need, and that's what the governor is trying to address."
DCFS did not respond to multiple requests for answers to questions about its staffing levels or how it was responding to the Inspector General's report.
But the agency's interim director, Debra Dyer-Webster, told a legislative committee Tuesday she is also hopeful lawmakers will address the staffing shortages.
"These are the investigators and case workers on the front line working directly with children and families," she said. "This funding will have an extraordinary impact on caseloads and the time and quality of service we can provide to all in our care."