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Senate committee addresses DCFS mandated reporting, death reports amid pandemic

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Illinois DCFS officials spoke with the Senate Human Services Committee Monday for their first update since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

The department knew abuse calls from mandated reporters would be down this spring as children weren't in school. But the pandemic drastically changed this process. The Capitol Bureau spoke with DCFS Acting Director Marc D. Smith about this issue in July. Smith noted a significant drop in abuse calls - roughly 58% - during the first several months of the pandemic.

The amount of calls to the DCFS hotline is getting back to normal levels as mandated reporters are seeing more children either virtually or in person. However, officials saw an increase in abuse and neglect investigations shortly before school started.

"This can attributed to the increase of reporting by law enforcement, by the steady reporting of medical professionals and the community observing or reporting first-hand information of child maltreatment," explained DCFS Child Abuse Hotline Administrator Gayle Hopper.

She also highlighted a new online platform was created over the weekend to help mandated reporters contact the department. Since Sunday, officials have already seen a significant amount of teachers and school staff using the online reporting system.

Death and life-threatening injuries

Several committee members raised concerns about the agency's death and life-threatening injuries report. The most recent report was submitted on August 17. Department officials said the quarterly death rate stayed consistent with recent years.

Smith previously explained DCFS was doing everything possible to help children in need. That included hotline employees working at home and taking on extra hours, along with new workers hired to help with investigations. Still, senators are concerned that the quarterly reports on death and life-threatening injury are too confusing to understand what happened.

"Please make it usable, please don't code it in ways that don't make sense," said Committee Chair Julie Morrison (D-Deerfield). "Supply the key to those of us who are not professionals in the agency so we all know what we're looking at. That would be helpful too."

The department is required to release that information to the House Speaker and Senate President, as well as lawmakers in the region. However, Morrison notes many lawmakers never see the reports about deaths in their districts in real-time.

"Every member of the General Assembly should receive the Death or Serious Life-Threatening Injury Report each month so we can all be aware of these tragedies," Morrison said. "We need to know about those children, their cause of death, and the circumstances."

Officials explained the reports, published on the General Assembly's website, are easily accessible. Still, they plan to email the information to lawmakers as well.

"The number of children in care who died is very low," Smith testified Monday. "We review kids who have a connection, who have been investigated and just kids who have passed. So, the report number isn't just our kids. It's kids who we just come in contact with, and many of them because of the death."

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Mike Miletich

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