The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services ( DCFS ) is the agency that protects Illinois children from abuse and neglect. DCFS was established in 1964, and its principle function is to receive reports of abuse and neglect, to conduct investigations, and to take action to assure that children are protected. In some cases, this means removing the children from their homes and placing them in foster homes; in other cases, it involves providing services to families to prevent reoccurrence of the abuse or neglect.
The Department and its approximately 4,500 workers are also organized by divisions and offices. These include the divisions of Child Protection, Foster Care and Permanency Services, Clinical Services, Operations and Community Services, Administrative Case Review, Purchase of Service Monitoring and Support Services. There are also offices of Quality Assurance, Health Services, Medical Director, Guardian, Internal Audits, Legal Services, Employee Services, Latino Services, Affirmative Action, Administrative Case Review, and the Inspector General.
The Department of Children and Family Services is the first "cabinet level agency" in the nation specifically created to serve children and families. During the 90's, there has been growing emphasis on culturally competent, child-centered, community-based services. A Consent Decree was signed by U.S. District Court Judge John Grady of Chicago in 1991. The B.H. Consent Decree is a 69-page document that spells out comprehensive reforms that improve the responsiveness of Illinois' child welfare system to the needs of children and families and holds it more accountable to the general public.
Under the decree, the Department agreed to carry out the reforms on a phased-in basis. Reforms also have been initiated on a number of additional fronts. New laws have created a Foster Parents Bill of Rights, a Code of Ethics for child welfare professionals, and established the standard of a "child's best interest" in making child protection and welfare decisions. Also, new training programs have been instituted and all supervisors of direct service workers are now required to have a Masters in Social Work degree.
Reforms also focus on reducing the time children spend in the child welfare system. In 1997, the Department began to implement a legislatively mandated Permanency Initiative. The initiative speeds up the timetable for permanency decision-making by amending the Juvenile Court process and emphasizing the early provisions of services to help parents correct the conditions which brought their children into the welfare system. Parents who are unwilling or unable to make progress toward the return of their children now risk loss of their parental rights in as early as one year.
Other reforms affect the Department's subsidized guardianship program. Established in 1996, the program offers a new option for children living with caregivers who are providing a safe and stable environment, but for whom the normal goals of adoption or return home have been ruled out. Subsidized guardianship transfers the legal custody of a child from DCFS to that of a private caregiver while maintaining some support. Under such an arrangement, the Department relinquishes the care, supervision, and custody of the child but may pay a subsidy to the legal guardian to assist in the child's care.
In 1997, the Council on Accreditation for Services to Families and Children accredited eight DCFS offices, marking the first phase toward achieving accreditation of all DCFS offices. The Department is one of the first state agencies to seek such comprehensive accreditation for itself and the private agencies it contracts with, thereby assuring consistent, quality service for all its clients.
In 1980, DCFS established a State Central Register in Springfield which maintains a 24-hour statewide hotline which citizens may call to report suspected abuse or neglect of a child. The number is 1-800-25-ABUSE and TTY 1-800-358-5117.
The same numbers are used by professionals such as doctors and teachers who are required by law to report suspected cases of abuse or neglect. The Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act mandates that those persons most likely to come in contact with children, report suspected abuse or neglect.
The hotline received 355,579 phone calls during Fiscal Year 1997, a 5.8 percent decrease from the previous year. As a result of those calls, reports of alleged abuse or neglect involving 119,209 children were taken, representing a 4.8 percent decrease from the previous year. A call is considered a report if the hotline worker has reasonable cause to suspect that abuse or neglect has occurred, thus warranting investigation. If the worker determines that a legitimate complaint has been made, the Department's investigative staff must respond within 24 hours.
The Department attempts to break the cycle of abuse and neglect through a number of projects and programs, including:
- Training sessions on parenting skills and coping with children
- Counseling to improve the self-esteem of parents
- Crisis nurseries for children at risk
- Establishment of peer support groups for children and parents
- Some of these programs and financed through state funds and others receive funding through federal grants. In recent years, the Illinois Child Abuse Prevention Fund has been a major funding source. Since the fund was established in 1984, it has helped more than 300,000 children and families. All donations go to community-based programs.
When children cannot be returned to their birth parents, adoption becomes the permanency goal of choice. In Fiscal Year 1997, DCFS achieved an all-time high of 2,229 adoptions.
The Department anticipates even further growth in the number of adoptions under performance-based contracting. The program, which went into effect in July 1997 in Cook County, and implemented statewide in January 1998, aligns incentives with the outcomes that are best for children. Contracts will now be paid for positive permanency outcomes, e.g. reunification, adoption or subsidized guardianship. Agencies will be responsible for balancing their numbers of incoming cases with the number of cases they discharge. To meet the goal of reducing the length of time children remain in foster care, the plan allocates greater resources for reunification, adoption, and counseling services.
When moving children to permanency by way of adoption is ruled out, the other alternative is guardianship. In Fiscal Year 1997, DCFS received permission from the federal government to provide subsidies, identical to those provided in adoptions, to families taking guardianship of a child who is at least 12 years old, has been in care for at least two years, and has been in care for at least two years, and has been with the foster family who wants to be his/her guardian for at least one year. Sibling groups are eligible if at least one of the siblings meets the criteria.
Among DCFS' responsibilities is the licensing of day care centers and homes to assure a safe environment for children who need such services. In July 1997, the Department transferred responsibility for many of its day care programs to the new Illinois Department of Human Services. The following programs were transferred: subsidized child care for low-income working families, migrant head start services, child care providers. DCFS continues to purchase protective day care services for children in the DCFS caseload, as well as day care services for foster children working foster parents.
Substitute care numbers have grown dramatically. At the end of Fiscal Year 1997, there were approximately 51,331 children in foster homes and other kinds of substitute care. Of those, 19,029 were in foster homes, 28,129 were in relative foster homes (living with relatives), and 4,173 were in institution or group homes.
It is important for every person to take child abuse and neglect seriously, to be able to recognize when it happens, and to know what to do next. Care enough to call the State's Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-25-ABUSE
Hotline social workers this year will handle more than 130,000 reports of child abuse and neglect. Child abuse is the mistreatment of a child under the age of 18 by a parent, caretaker, someone living in the child's home or someone who works with or around children. The mistreatment must cause injury or must put the child at risk of physical injury. Child abuse can by physical (such as burns or broken bones), sexual (such as fondling or incest), or emotional.
Neglect happens when a parent or responsible care taker fails to provide adequate supervision, food, clothing, shelter or other basics for a child.
You should call the Child Abuse Hotline whenever you believe that a person who is caring for a child, who lives with a child, or who works with or around children has caused injury or harm or put the child at risk of physical injury as defined in the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act.
Some examples include:
- If you see someone hitting a child with an object
- If you see marks on a child's body that do not appear to have been caused by an accident
- If a child tells you that he or she has been harmed by someone
- If a child appears to be undernourished, is dressed inappropriately for the weather, or is young and has been left alone
- These are a few situations when you should call the Hotline. Use your own judgment can call the Hotline whenever you think a child has been abused or neglected.
Some situations do not require calling the Hotline. Use good judgment. Call only when you think a child has been or will be injured as described above.
Some examples of when you should not call the Hotline include:
- Situations where a child is causing a problem that concerns you, but the problem is not related to abuse or neglect. In some cases you may wish to call the police or talk to the child's parents or relatives.
- Domestic situations where family stress is evident, but the child has not been abused or at risk of abuse. Community service agencies are often available to help.
- If you're seeking information about DCFS or it's programs, our Office of Communications is available to answer questions at 217-785-1700 or you may call your local DCFS office.
Hotline staff are social workers with special training in determining what constitutes child abuse and neglect under Illinois law. Details are important.
Ideally, you should be able to tell the Hotline worker:
- The child's name, address and age.
- The nature of the suspected abuse or neglect, including when and where it occurred.
- The names of suspected perpetrators and their relationship to the child (parent, teacher, etc.)
- Any other information you think may help
When you call, a Hotline social worker will listen to what you wish to report. The worker will then ask questions to help gather enough information to determine whether to take a formal report. If there is not enough information to take a report, the worker will tell you so and answer any questions you may have. If a formal report is taken, a child protective investigator will begin the investigation within 24 hours - much sooner if the child is considered in immediate risk of harm.
Members of the general public may make reports without giving their names. People who do not give their names and report alleged child abuse or neglect in good faith cannot be held liable for damages under criminal or civil law. In addition, their names cannot be given to the person they name as the perpetrator or to anyone else unless ordered by a hearing officer or judge.
If you believe abuse or neglect has occurred, call the Hotline. However, you should also consider calling the police - especially in emergencies or when the child has been injured.
The Illinois income tax check-off program enables people to donate to the Child Abuse Prevention Fund when they file their state income tax returns. The money is used to support community-based family education programs designed to help parents improve their parenting skills and learn how to cope with family life. DCFS also offers a wide variety of volunteer programs for people wanting to serve their communities. Call your local DCFS office for details.
Members of the general public may report suspected child abuse and neglect if they choose. However, state law mandates that workers in certain professions must make reports if they have reasonable cause to suspect abuse or neglect.
Mandated reporters include:
- Medical Personnel: Physicians, psychiatrists, surgeons, residents, interns, dentists, dental hygienists, medical examiners, pathologists, osteopaths, coroners, Christian Science practitioners, chiropractors, podiatrists, registered and licensed practical nurses, emergency medical technicians, substance abuse treatment personnel, hospital administrators and other personnel involved in the examination, care or treatment of patients.
- School and Child Care Personnel: Teachers, school personnel, educational advocates assigned to a child pursuant to the School Code, truant officers, directors and staff assistants of day care centers and nursery schools, and child care workers.
- Law Enforcement Personnel: Truant officers, probation officers, law enforcement officers, and field personnel of the Department of Corrections.
- State Agencies: Field personnel from the Departments of Children and Family Services, Public Health, Public Aid, Mental Health and Development Disabilities, Corrections, Human Rights, and Rehabilitation Services. Also includes supervisors and administrators of general assistance under the Illinois Public Aid Code.
- Others: Social workers, social service administrators, domestic violence program personnel, crisis line or hotline personnel, foster parents, homemakers, recreational program or facility personnel, registered psychologists and assistants working under the direct supervision of a psychologist.
Mandated reporters making good faith reports have the same immunity from liability under the law as non-mandated reporters. However, a mandated reporter's failure to report suspected instances of child abuse or neglect to DCFS constitutes a Class A misdemeanor; simply reporting suspicions to a superior does not satisfy legal requirements.
Calls to the Child Abuse Hotline that meet requirements under state law for a child abuse or neglect report to be made are immediately referred to a Department investigator. State law (325 ILCS 5) requires the investigator to see the child within 24 hours or sooner. The state law also gives the Department authority to take protective custody of children (remove children from the home) or take other protective actions if the children are in danger of being harmed.
The state law defines an "abused child" as a minor under age 18 who is being harmed by any person responsible for a child's welfare, including the following: a parent, family member, any person who resides in the home, a boyfriend or girlfriend of the parent, babysitter or day care provider. Harm to the child may be the physical or emotional injury (or serious risk of injury), excessive punishment, sexual offenses or child torture.
The law defines a "neglected child" as any child whose parent or person responsible for the child's welfare does not provide necessary support, as required by law, medical or other care for the well-being of the child, or such necessities as adequate clothing, food and shelter. A child who has been left with a relative as their plan of care is not considered neglect. The Department will not remove your children from your home due to neglect unless your child is in immediate danger or the services provided by the Department cannot reduce the neglect.
Anyone can make a report. Reports are made by calling the 24-hour toll-free Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-252-2873. Certain people-doctors, nurses, teachers, child care center staff, social workers, and other mandated reporters- can lose their licenses or suffer other penalties if they do not report when they think a child is being harmed. The Child Abuse Hotline worker who speaks with the caller will determine whether there is enough information to start an investigation.
The law requires the Department of Children and Family Services investigator to see or attempt to see all children who are alleged to have been abused or neglected within 24 hours of the time the report is received. The Department investigator will contact the child and the family and will show official identification and explain what the report is about. The Department investigator will interview the people residing in the home and other people who may be helpful to the investigation.
If you or members of your family are involved in a DCFS investigation, you can help by providing full information to the investigator. The investigator will ask questions and may contact other people. The names of witnesses, doctors, teachers, neighbors, friends and relatives who have a firsthand knowledge of you and your children will be most helpful.
The police and the local state's attorney will be notified of all serious cases and reports, especially those which involve the alleged serious physical or sexual abuse of children. The police may also be called if, for some reason, individuals refuse to cooperate with the investigative worker. The police make either investigate jointly with DCFS or conduct their own investigation.
Steps will be taken to assure the safety of children when they are in danger of being harmed. This may require temporary placement of children with relatives, placement in a foster home, a shelter care facility, or some other type of protective service. Before a child is taken into protective custody, the investigator will consider whether certain services, such as assistance in locating and securing housing, could avoid the need for the children to be placed outside the home.
The Child Protection Investigator will remove a child from the home (Temporary Protective Custody) Hearing is held in Juvenile Court so that a judge may determine whether the child is in need of protection. Parents receive a written notice that a Shelter Care Hearing is scheduled and should attend this hearing. Based on the evidence presented at the hearing, the judge may return a child to the parents or order DCFS to serve as temporary custodian of the child. In subsequent Juvenile Court hearings, the judge hears evidence to determine whether the child is abused, neglected or dependent and the services made available to reunite the child and family. DCFS, the parents, and others present information at these hearings. The judge enters orders in the best interest of the child based on the circumstances of the case.
By law, the Department cannot release the name of the person who made the report or anyone who cooperated in the investigation. Limited exceptions are described in the Department's administrative rules.
Once the investigator has gathered the important facts from the people involved, a decision or finding must be made by the investigator pending review by a supervisor. Usually a decision is made in less than 30 days. By law, the decision must be made within 60 days. An investigator can make one of two decisions. A report can be "unfounded" (when there is no credible evidence that the child was abused or neglected), or "indicated" (when there is credible evidence that the child was abused or neglected). "Credible evidence" means that the facts gathered by the investigator would lead a reasonable person to believe that a child had been abused or neglected.
If you are alleged to have abused or neglected a child, you will receive a letter from the Department telling you of the results of the investigation. You should receive this letter within 90 days of the date the investigation started. If an extension is requested, the letter may be sent after the 90 day period.
If the investigator decides that there is credible evidence the child abuse or neglect report will be indicated, the investigative report will be kept by the Department for 5 to 50 years, depending on the severity of the incident. If the report is unfounded, the information will be kept from 30 days to 12 months, depending on the nature of the incident. The record will then be destroyed, unless you ask that it be retained because of concerns about harassment.
If you have been investigated, and the report is indicated, you have certain rights. These include:
- The right to request and receive information contained in Department records about the investigation (not including information about person(s) who reported the alleged abuse or neglect or people who cooperated with the investigation).
- The right to disagree with the finding and ask DCFS for a First Level Review of the report. Such a review will be conducted by a team of professionals who were not involved in the investigation.
- If the professional team agrees with the original investigative decision, you may then request an Administrative Hearing conducted by a Department Administrative Law Judge.
- If you do not accept the Department's final decision, you can go to court and ask for a Judicial Review.
- You have a right to hire a lawyer at any point in the above appeal process.
Occasionally an intentional false call is made on purpose to harass someone. This is against the law. If you believe this is what is what happened to you, immediately notify the Department. There are criminal penalties for false reporting, and there are steps the Department can take to deal with the problem. Note that while a report may be unfounded, it does not necessarily mean that it was based on an intentional false call.
The Department has many types of services for children and parents, some of which you may be eligible to receive.
A few examples include:
- Counseling for children and families to help them manage and improve their environment
- Parent training to improve parenting practices and to protect children from abusive or neglectful situations
- Homemaker services to provide help in the home for families under stress
- Day care services to provide short-term help to families and child development programs for children
- Foster care-temporary care in a family home for an abused or neglected child