PEDIATRICIAN DR. DEMETRA SOTER LOOKS AT DCFS
AND THE CHILD PROTECTION SYSTEM IN ILLINOIS
As a practicing pediatrician for 12 years and the coordinator of the pediatric trauma unit at the Cook County Children's Hospital, Dr. Demetra Soter has had extensive interaction with DCFS in relationship to children who have been severely abused or neglected. In that time she has seen the agency make several advancements in the way it protects children.
According to Dr. Soter, improvements in child protection have included an increase in the number of better trained workers and a system that "now listens." Today, there is a greater emphasis on the education of caseworkers as more workers take advantage of the Social Work Education Program (SWEP), the advanced degree program offered by the agency. The relationship between investigators and doctors, which is crucial to child abuse investigations, has also improved. Another key improvement for DCFS was the appointment of Jess McDonald, who is knowledgeable about child welfare issues. "Jess McDonald knows what's going on in the system and that results in better care for our kids, " she said.
Apart from DCFS, Dr. Soter praised Public Guardian Patrick Murphy for helping to change the face of child protection in Illinois. She credited him with heightening the public's awareness of child abuse.
"Before (Murphy) came into office, I would see all this (abuse) but no one in the community knew what was going on because everything was confidential," Dr. Soter recalled. "A lot of (the change) is because of pressure from Patrick Murphy's office."
In comparing Illinois' system with other states Dr. Soter noted that here, child protection is a great deal more developed. In Wisconsin, for example, the child abuse hotline is set up in only one county and only operates during business hours. An abuse or neglect report will not follow a family once it leaves that county. This is unlike Illinois, where the system covers the entire state around the clock. "New York is cutting their budget for child protection services and (Illinois is) expanding," Dr. Soter said. "And it's not all (about) money, there's a difference in attitude."
That difference has come as a result of the important strides that the system has made in the last decade in particular. "I'm glad I live in Illinois. I could not have said that 10 years ago," Dr. Soter insisted. "When it comes to child abuse prevention, I think we do a really good job. The judges are better, the court system is better. The whole outlook is better. It's not as grim and pessimistic."
In terms of her own job, Dr. Soter estimated that she reports 50 percent of the children she examines to the child abuse hotline. As a member of the Child Protective Services team at the Cook County Children's Hospital, she has seen a great deal in terms of the abuse and the neglect of children.
One mother, she recalled, left the hospital with a child who had been accidentally burned because she had five prior reports with DCFS. "So, even though the kid got burned by accident, she left," Dr. Soter said, "Now she may lose custody of her child" The doctors later learned that the only reason the mother brought the girl to the hospital was because a follow-up worker had cut off her public aid after he hadn't seen the family in four months.
Dr. Soter and other members of the Child Protective Services Team are often called in to evaluate a child before a report is made to the hotline. On any day the team can see as many as 10 children. In her opinion, working with a group is easier because, unlike investigators who work alone, a doctor doesn't have to make a decision about the suspicion of abuse or neglect without the input and opinion of others. The 12-member team includes social workers, doctors, nurses, a dietician, a psychiatrist, a representative from the women's violence program and DCFS child protection manager John Robinson.
In addition to her work at the hospital, Dr. Soter has been a member of the Child Fatality Task Force since its creation in 1992. The task force investigates the deaths of children who have had previous involvement with DCFS. The groups make recommendations to Director McDonald after examining how a child died and what contributed to the child's death. Finding solutions that lead to child abuse prevention is the ultimate goal of the task force. "What we have learned is it's not finger pointing (that prevents child deaths), it's what we can do differently," Dr. Soter said.
Although she sees a lot of children who have died at the hands of abusive or negligent parents, there is a more positive side to what Dr. Soter decision-making a difference in the lives of the children who are not dead. Granted, she admitted, if a dead child is brought to the hospital there is nothing that can be done for him or her. But there is hope for the sibling(s) of that child or an abused child who is still alive.
"We can guarantee that whether he goes back home with services or to an auntie or a foster home, he is going somewhere better," Dr. Soter said. "That's the one thing that we have ... when our kids leave the hospital they usually go to something better."