The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services reports that 87 of the 210 child deaths investigated during the fiscal year that ended June 30 involved credible evidence of abuse or neglect. With 29 similar fatalities still awaiting an official ruling, Illinois appears likely to again tally one of the highest totals since the state began tracking the statistic in 1981.

DCFS also released an updated total for the previous fiscal year, which showed a record 111 child fatalities tied to mistreatment, with two additional deaths still under investigation.

The information was released this week after repeated requests from the Tribune, which sought the child death data after the agency removed it last winter from its online statistical summaries. DCFS removed the information “temporarily” after launching a review “to address concerns surrounding data collection and the efficacy of our accounting system,” according to a statement Thursday from spokeswoman Karen Hawkins.

“We owe it to the public to be transparent in all that we do,” the statement said. “We believe the rerelease of our child death data is an important step forward for the department and for our partners as we work together to keep more children safe.”

Benjamin Wolf, assistant legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said there’s “no excuse” for a child welfare system not accurately tracking and disclosing such important records.

“I think the department has suffered from a revolving door of leadership in recent years,” said Wolf, who monitors DCFS under a federal consent decree. “It remains a problem.”

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The blackout on child death data followed a heated Illinois Senate committee hearing last year during which DCFS officials said they had underreported 11 fatalities over a five-year period. The revelation prompted a call for resignations from one stunned lawmaker.

The continued public scrutiny of the state agency comes during a hotly contested gubernatorial race, repeated budget cuts and abrupt leadership changes at DCFS, which has had four different directors since November 2013.

DCFS attributes the back-to-back high rates in annual abuse and neglect findings, in part, to improved investigations and data collection rather than a surge in abuse of children.

In late 2011, the agency also began holding more caregivers accountable for an official neglect finding if an infant died after being left in an unsafe sleep situation, such as in bed with a parent. Officials at the time emphasized that such deaths were preventable.

But in March, DCFS reverted to its old policy and no longer investigates child sleep deaths where there is no evidence of neglect such as bruising or substance abuse. The move means such cases are no longer included in the death-by-neglect statistics.

Child welfare experts are divided on the appropriate response to unsafe sleep-related deaths. States vary widely in their approach, which is part of a larger national problem of flawed and inconsistent methods used to tally and analyze child fatalities, the experts say.

Two disturbing cases

No one disputes that the majority of child maltreatment deaths in Illinois are related to neglect. In fact, most victims don’t live to see their first birthdays.

Though fatalities involving physical abuse are not on the rise, the recent torture deaths of two Chicago-area girls underscore the importance of intervention by DCFS.

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Remember when the Trib posted pictures of all the dead kids on the front page? 98 blacks and 2 hispanics if I recall.
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Last Friday, an 11-year-old Waukegan girl died of physical abuse. Prosecutors said Raasania Coley, at just 60 pounds, was malnourished and covered in scars, ligature marks and bruises.

Her mother, Nicholette Lawrence, 32, was charged with first-degree murder. Prosecutors said she confessed to punching Raasania in the stomach earlier in the week, as well as previously beating her with an extension cord.

DCFS has refused to disclose whether the agency had prior contact with the family, but Lake County court records show that girl’s stepfather in 2011 was charged with battering the child. In such cases, DCFS would have been notified. Waukegan police also have confirmed they went to the house June 21 after an anonymous caller reported possible child abuse, but officers said they found no evidence that the child was in danger and did not notify DCFS.

In another disturbing case, Gizzell Ford, 8, was brutalized over several weeks and strangled in July 2013 in her grandmother’s Chicago apartment.
A Tribune investigation into Gizzell’s death found several systemic errors. Besides questionable decisions by the family court, medical officials and the child advocacy center, a DCFS investigator failed to spot signs of trouble after visiting the ramshackle home one month earlier.

A state Senate panel was convened in December in response to the Tribune’s report, which made public for the first time that the agency’s child death numbers had reached a record 111 cases for the 2013 fiscal year.

The state’s 30-year average is 77 child deaths by abuse or neglect. The previous high of 102 deaths came in the 1989 fiscal year.

But during the legislative hearing, DCFS officials disclosed that they had uncovered errors in how the child death statistics were calculated. Officials said the mistakes were due to “the department’s tracking and reporting system,” which included counting as a single death some cases in which more than one child died. Other times, a single death was counted as two if more than one hotline call was generated, or if more than one perpetrator was charged.

For example, the June 2013 killing of 14-year-old Alex Spourdalakis, a River Grove boy who had autism, was accidentally tallied twice because his mother and caregiver both were charged with the child’s fatal stabbing.

DCFS officials said they have made improvements to safeguard against similar miscalculations.

Flawed reporting nationwide

The number of child deaths across the country attributed to abuse and neglect has remained steady at about 1,640 annual fatalities, according to the latest federal report.

The most recent national average is 2.2 deaths per 100,000 children. By that standard, Illinois ranked fourth for the highest per capita rate out of 44 states reporting.

Critics say it’s an unfair measure because of inconsistent standards in the way states collect and report such data.

“I think the shame we should all carry is that despite all our care and concern and all the work we’ve put in, we still haven’t figured out a consistent way to count,” said Patricia Martin, the presiding judge over Cook County’s child protection division.

One of the biggest areas of debate is whether to include, within the neglect category, deaths caused by unsafe sleep conditions.

Hoping to better investigate such deaths statewide, DCFS in recent years began counting unsafe sleep deaths as neglect in cases where investigators could prove the adult caregiver was aware of the potential danger. Amid criticism over the increased child death tallies and disagreement on whether sleep-related deaths constitute neglect, DCFS now will investigate such cases only if suspicious circumstances are found. Those include physical injuries to the child, the caregivers’ admitted alcohol or drug use, a lack of supervision or prior agency involvement.

The change in policy will likely lead to a drop in reported maltreatment fatalities.

Child welfare officials in Indiana say they investigate all sudden and unexplained deaths. But Michigan, similar to Illinois’ new stance, does not count such sleep-related deaths as negligence unless a secondary factor becomes evident.

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In a recent report on unsafe sleep fatalities, Illinois DCFS Inspector General Denise Kane said it is “ill-advised” to indicate that a parent is responsible for child neglect until lawmakers officially recognize it as negligent or medical experts agree on how unsafe the practice of co-sleeping with a baby really is.

Kane found that it unfairly burdens poor families and minorities. The agency’s findings have been inconsistent from case to case despite similar circumstances, she said.

The inspector general also found that administrative law judges who hear appeals to DCFS findings have backed parents who fell asleep with their babies while nursing or in a misguided effort to comfort them.

“You’ve lost your child,” Kane said recently. “Is that not punishment enough?”

The ACLU’s Wolf and child advocates such as SIDS of Illinois agree with Kane, especially in light of repeated state budget cuts when DCFS has limited resources.

“Yes, it’s negligence, but I don’t think that’s what the public thinks abuse is all about,” Wolf said. “We ought to reserve the category of abuse and neglect for the really horrible things that endanger kids.”

A Tribune review of several infant deaths involving co-sleeping in 2013 and 2014 highlighted the troubling conditions that sometimes exist in those homes. Records reviewed by the newspaper revealed instances where more than one child over time had died in the same family after being left in an unsafe sleep condition.

In those cases, DCFS officials say, the agency still would investigate even under the new policy.

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Advocates such as Dr. David Rubin, a Pennsylvania pediatrician who serves with Martin on the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, argue that because such deaths are preventable, they should be investigated by child welfare officials.

Ultimately, however, agencies such as DCFS are too often used as the scapegoat for a responsibility that should be shared by everyone, Rubin said.

“People tend to think of this as a child welfare issue, but when three out of four kids who are dying of abuse or neglect are not known to the system, I think we have to start broadening the discussion at a community level,” he said. “It’s not solely the responsibility of a child welfare director.”