Some Illinois lawmakers are demanding answers from the about recent child abuse deaths and new policies that push investigators to speed up abuse and neglect investigations.
"What happened in these cases?" asked state Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Deerfield, who will be participating in a joint House-Senate hearing on DCFS scheduled for May 26 in Springfield. "I'm going to focus on any cases that were closed early, any and all."
Morrison and state Rep. , D-Chicago, said they plan to question DCFS officials following a May 11 Tribune report on three Cook County cases in which children died of beatings or starvation shortly after the agency closed investigations into mistreatment in their homes.
"You are leaving children in harm's way," Flowers said in an interview.
DCFS and Director George Sheldon did not immediately respond to requests by the Tribune for comment. Sheldon is considering a job offer from a Miami nonprofit as he faces Illinois ethics probes into DCFS contracts that benefited his friends and political associates. Sheldon said he will make his decision about whether to stay with the agency this week.
Flowers said she also was troubled by the Tribune's account of a new DCFS program called Blue Star that offers overtime pay to Cook County investigators who significantly boost the percentage of cases they close within 14 days.
"There is an incentive to do harm, and that is unacceptable," Flowers said. ""I need to know what happened to those Blue Star kids. What else is out there that we can prevent from happening?"
DCFS denied offering financial rewards to investigators who quickly closed investigations, but agency officials said they now are reviewing how Blue Star was communicated to workers and whether the case-closing goals are appropriate.
Sheldon has told the Tribune the goal of Blue Star was to help investigators focus on the most serious allegations of harm.
The acceleration of case closings — and a drop in the percentage of investigations where abuse was found — started in Cook County last year after three child fatalities. The newspaper found shortcuts and failures in those investigations, including times when DCFS did not interview key witnesses or gather medical information and other evidence.
In one case, a DCFS investigator reported that he saw 6-month-old Jazmine Walker in May 2016 and found her "free of any salient signs of abuse or neglect."
Eight days later the infant was dead of starvation, weighing less than 5 pounds with bones protruding visibly beneath her skin. In response to Tribune questions, DCFS has asked agency Inspector General Denise Kane to probe whether the agency investigator actually saw the girl or fabricated his account.
In the second case, 4-year-old Manuel Aguilar was pronounced dead in August 2016 after DCFS closed three separate investigations into mistreatment in his Southwest Side home. DCFS did not interview or even acknowledge the presence of a violent, gang-involved man who lived there, and failed to follow up when Manny's siblings told a caseworker about beatings and lack of food, among other shortcomings, the Tribune found.
The third case fell through the cracks because of poor communication between the agency investigator and a private contractor, a subsequent DCFS Quality Assurance Review found. Two-year-old Elliana Claiborne died in Nov. 2015 when her mother allegedly punched her in the stomach; DCFS had closed a prior abuse investigation without proper follow-up, government records show.
In Tribune interviews, DCFS officials acknowledged mistakes in the handling of all three cases.
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