Luciano: In scathing order, judge faults DCFS and Peoria agency in child-welfare case
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By Phil Luciano
Posted Jul 11, 2020 at 2:32 PM
PEKIN — In an extraordinary and scathing court order, a Tazewell County judge admonished the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and one of its contracted providers in a child-welfare case.
FamilyCore, a Peoria-based organization that has done social-service work for more than 100 years, was removed from the case — an extremely rare judicial intervention — after acting “recklessly” and being “grossly negligent,” according to the order. Further, the judge faulted FamilyCore’s “entire chain of command” and lambasted DFCS’s “cavalier attitude.”
The order suggests that FamilyCore is at risk from being removed from more child-welfare cases.
“Without substantial systemic corrective processes being undertaken, it appears that Family Core’s actions and inactions as brought out in this case may warrant their removal from all active juvenile abuse and neglect cases in Tazewell County,” Judge James Mack wrote in his May 22 order.
The case’s entire history is unclear. But child-welfare cases generally arise via two scenarios:
‒ After an alleged crime, such as criminal abuse by a parent, that prompts state intervention for the safety of a minor.
‒ After a credible report to the DCFS alleging neglect or abuse of a child.
In either situation, a county’s state’s attorney takes civil action on behalf of a minor, often seeking counseling, alternative housing or other intervention. Meantime, the child is represented by an attorney known as a guardian ad litem, while parents can choose to be represented by a lawyer, either private counsel or a public defender.
From hearings and documents, a judge weighs all parties’ information before determining any intervention services, which are conducted and monitored by the DCFS and/or a contracted provider. Such services can change and develop as a case moves forward.
By state law, child-welfare cases are largely kept out of the public eye, to protect the privacy of minors. Such court files are not open to public view, and court officers are prohibited from discussing such cases publicly outside a court proceeding. As such, State’s Attorney Stewart Umholtz did not return a Journal Star call for comment about the case.
However, the order by Judge Mack was obtained by the Journal Star. The order does not sketch out the entire case, nor does it specify the age or gender of the minor. But it does reveal that the minor had been physically abused by their mother and by “multiple paramours of the mother.” The minor was involved in a “juvenile and abuse case” in 2016, the same year the minor was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the order says.
The minor, who suffers from nightmares, had what the order calls a “psychiatric event” in 2019, the same year the current case began. The minor has been in foster care, during which time the minor at times lacked mental-health “medication refills,” the order says. Apparently, the minor is now in the care of a relative.
After the case was initiated last year, FamilyCore was named as the legal custodian of the minor.
Started in 1900, FamilyCore and its 80-plus employees work with schools, courts and other agencies in Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford County. The not-for-profit, which had an operating budget of $5.8 million last year, offers services that include adoption, counseling and child welfare. In the latter regard, FamilyCore is one of multiple providers sometimes contracted to act on behalf of the DCFS in neglect and abuse cases..
FamilyCore’s website touts that the organization’s credentials with the Council on Accreditation of Services: “Accreditation assures you and our community that FamilyCore demonstrates effective management and provides high levels of service, quality community programs, knowledgeable personnel and safe, accessible facilities.”
The site also says that the organization last year “touched over 15,719 lives in the area.” It’s unclear of the number of active DCFS cases involving FamilyCore in Peoria, Tazwell or Woodford counties.
On April 20, the guardian ad litem in the Tazewell County case filed a motion called “Emergency Motion to Remove Agency,” referring to FamilyCore. A hearing was held May 7, at which multiple FamilyCore employees were called to testify. The judge’s order recounts some of that testimony in addressing allegations of the motion.
Included among the judge’s findings, including quote from the judge’s order:
‒ The minor’s caseworker, a relative new hire by FamilyCore, gave testimony that “was not credible.”
‒ When a minor in a child-welfare case has a court-granted visit by an adult, caseworkers routinely prepare a visitation log to document the interaction. As part of the hearing in this case, the court wanted to review the log regarding a Dec. 15 visit between the minor and their mom. However, the caseworker provided one log, while a DCFS attorney provided a different log. The caseworker “had no credible explanation for the disparity.” Further, neither log mentioned that the visit was joined by a particular adult male, an omission the judge deemed “disturbing.”
‒ Caseworkers routinely perform what are called home safety checks, to ensure the appropriateness of a minor’s surroundings. The caseworker claimed she performed such a check on April 10, but the judge disagreed: “The court finds this statement … not credible.”
‒ On April 24, in regard to the original motion yet prior to the hearing, the judge ordered the removal of the caseworker from the case. However, she continued to work on the case beyond that date — as known by FamilyCore coworkers, including her supervisor.
‒ The caseworker failed to run proper background checks on adults who were to have interactions with the minor. The caseworker offered excuses for this failure, including placing blame on internet problems, a claim the judge rejected: “This court does not find her credible on the issue.” Further, the judge called the failure to run background checks to be “grossly negligent and obstructed the ability of the court and parties to order/provide timely services to all parties and most importantly to protect the minor.”
‒ The caseworker made “inaccurate statements” in at least one report, while FamilyCore “failed to keep appropriate records of this case as required by DCFS policy and procedure.” Moreover, “FamilyCore failed to correct issues with (the caseworker) even after they had information about her lack of credibility/truthfulness.”
‒ On April 20, the caseworker had invited the minor into her car to take the minor for an unsupervised visit with a potential foster parent — a visit approved by a FamilyCore director. However, the director abruptly stopped the visit after being contacted at the last minute by a representative of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a group that assists in child-welfare cases in the 10th Judicial Circuit, which includes Tazewell County. The CASA rep reminded the FamilyCore director of the DCFS’s COVID-19 visitation policy, which limits access to minors in child-welfare cases essentially to guardians and immediate family — guidelines that would not include the potential foster parent. The judge took a dim view of the director’s forgetfulness regarding the policy: “This testimony continues to bolster this court’s opinion and concerns about FamilyCore servicing this case and others if a director is not aware of DCFS policy and procedures.”
‒ FamilyCore failed to promptly arrange mental-health help for the minor, whose “issues” had led their removal from school. “FamilyCore failed to properly oversee the mental-health services of the minor,” the judge said. Further, he faulted multiple FamilyCore employees, including its chief executive officer, for not allowing the guardian ad litem and CASA from attending virtual meetings regarding the minor’s mental-health services. That decision “provides evidence that the whole chain command at FamilyCore failed to properly address the minor’s mental health.”
‒ A new caseworker was assigned April 20, but by May 7 had not reviewed the file, an indication of a “failure of FamilyCore to train their employees.”
In overall assessing the case, the judge used harsh language rarely seen in such matters. Regarding FamilyCore, he stated, “The agency failed to follow the Juvenile Act and DCFS police and acted recklessly in handling this case on multiple occasions.” Perhaps most damning, he wrote, “FamilyCore did not make reasonable efforts at any time during this case.”
Further, he upbraided DCFS for not only failing to keep FamilyCore in check, but never showing concern about potentially serious missteps in the case — a position the judge suggested essentially attempted to defend FamilyCore: “The court also finds disturbing the cavalier attitude and argument by DCFS that DCFS policy and regulations are some sort of guidelines and do not need to be strictly followed.”
Sources say FamilyCore’s lapses and transgressions, as outlined in the order, did not cause the minor to suffer immediate ill effects. However, they say, trouble could have arisen, had the judge not intervened.
DCFS did not respond to the Journal Star’s multiple requests for comment.
In removing an agency from a child-welfare case, the judge’s decision stands as almost unheard-of in the 10th Circuit. Further, the order’s language indicates that, should similar motions arise regarding other minors, FamilyCore could be removed from its other Tazewell County cases — there are dozens, if not more — “without systemic corrective processes being undertaken.” The order does not spell out how FamilyCore could perform or prove any such remedies.
To the Journal Star, FamilyCore CEO Ann Lading-Ferguson offered a statement regarding the order:
“While we can’t comment on ongoing legal proceedings (especially considering the confidentiality requirements associated with juvenile cases), what I can tell you is FamilyCore has seized the opportunity to reinforce and improve our processes going forward. For example, we’ve instituted additional regular training sessions with our staff, have beefed up our documentation oversight, and have recommitted to ensuring our reports are both accurate and timely in order to most effectively assist the Court and the parties in juvenile proceedings.
“We feel very excited as an agency to have strengthened our processes and procedures and know we are well-poised to continue our self-assessments and continuous improvement processes going forward. FamilyCore has been serving children and families in the Peoria region for more than 120 years. We were there on Day One when the first juvenile court in Peoria was formed, and we’ll bend over backwards to make sure we continue providing the community with the greatest level of support both now and for years to come.”
Meantime, it’s unclear if the Tazewell County order could reverberate into other counties with cases serviced by FamilyCore. Peoria County State’s Attorney Jodi Hoos declined to discuss the matter.
PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/philluciano and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.
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