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Former DCFS director says department must address poverty and neglect

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill.- The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has faced decades of scrutiny over youth in care dying, director turnover, and lack of accountability. The Capitol Bureau spoke with a former director of the agency about what changes could improve outcomes.

Jess McDonald served as DCFS director twice in the '90s for a combined 10 years. He feels the biggest issue facing the state's child welfare system is the combination of poverty and neglect.

McDonald stressed that oftentimes families only need three things to survive - affordable housing, food, and clothing for their children.

"If you can keep them from coming in by offering them services they need, you'll reduce the burden on the department so they can focus on the cases that really need attention," said McDonald.

He understands it would be a structural change. But, McDonald also stressed changes can't take place without action from lawmakers.

Resources are already available in parts of the state, however, not all families take advantage of those opportunities. Still, he emphasized the child welfare system is the go-to response when families lack access to community resources.

Academic dilemma

The COVID-19 pandemic has also created a new crisis for the system that stems from education. McDonald said when children aren't attending online school, it becomes an issue the department must resolve.

"When kids will go back to school, there will be some that don't come back," said McDonald. "Right now, I would imagine schools could tell you the list of kids that aren't participating in virtual learning and so they're going to be watching them."

The former director expects a major influx in child abuse hotline reports once kids fully return to in-person learning. McDonald hopes schools will take the initiative to contact these families and connect them with available resources.

"I regret that I've not seen much, anywhere, innovative programming to reach out to these families, and part of that is states are strapped," said McDonald.

He noted that when a student begins to miss school regularly, teachers don't always know the proper channels to contact. Some end up calling child welfare.

McDonald emphasized that the child welfare system too often becomes the default when mandated reporters don't know where to turn.

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Ali Rasper

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