New Directions in Child Protection
by: Jess McDonald, Director

In Illinois, as in most other states, the concept of what constitutes child protection services is evolving. We no longer accept the notion that child protection should consist of an investigator whose primary function is to determine whether a child was abused, who did it, and whether the child should be removed. This model of intervention can provide for the immediate safety of a child, but often it establishes an adversarial relationship with the family. This may make service provision and long-term risk resolution extremely difficult. The practice also identifies child abuse and neglect as a DCFS problem that our staff are to identify, treat and rectify. It moves community agencies, public service departments, parents, citizens of the community, and even our own operations staff to a peripheral role. The results have been fragmented services, a high rate of recurrent abuse, a lack of appropriate resources, and a low reunification rate for children who are placed in substitute care.

  • To alleviate these problems, child protection services in Illinois will replace investigations with assessment, independent actions with community organizations, and fragmented services with a continuum of care. All these realignments still conform to the notion that the safety of the child is paramount. Steps we have taken to reach these goals include:
  • Creating partnerships with law enforcement and the State's Attorney to respond vigorously to cases involving sexual abuse, death, and serious physical injury. This includes protocols for coordinated investigations of these types of cases through Child Advocacy Centers where they exist and through written protocols where they don't.
  • Developing the Local Area Networks (LANS) to expand their role to include needs assessments and resource development to meet the needs of children who have been abused or neglected, but can be safely maintained at home if interventions are available.
  • Using training and educational programs to get staff to focus on engagement and service assessment from our initial contact until we terminate services. All Child Protection supervisors have an MSW or are enrolled in an MSW program. All supervisors and line staff are attending six weeks of clinical practice retraining, which focuses on engagement rather than intervention.
  • Identifying in-home services as a child protection function that must continually focus on safety and risk assessment, and must be closely linked to the investigation process. In Cook County, intact services teams have been transferred to the Division of Child Protection in order to provide for common supervision, administration, and focus.
  • Establishing nine child death review teams to analyze cases where children died as a result of abuse or neglect. These multidisciplinary teams make recommendations to the Director as to how practice and/or procedures need to change to reduce the occurrences of child deaths.
  • Participating as a member of the Attorney General's Task Force on Violence to children, which proposes legislation that impacts issues related to child safety.
  • Collocating investigation and service staff within the community they serve. A major reason for the breaks in service that have occurred can be attributed the fact that the investigators and service workers are often located several miles from each other. Getting complete accurate information from one unit to the other in a timely manner can be difficult to manage. In addition to the collocation, we are requiring investigative staff and service staff to have a face-to-face meeting to hand off the case, usually with the family present.

In addition to these actions, as part of our front end redesign, we are piloting two models that redefine child protection investigators’ job descriptions to become more service-oriented. By combining these new job descriptions with the activities described above, DCFS child protection is progressing toward a model that is child-centered, family-focused, and community-based.