Does DCFS Need to Be Reformed?

Yes, but not in the ways you might think.

Posted Aug 30, 2018

Source: Skitterphoto/Pexels

Corey Widen, a mother in suburban Wilmette, was reported to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) recently because someone saw her 8-year-old daughter walking the dog alone, according to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune. The article notes that “mothers in the Chicago area and across the country have found themselves at the center of investigations by police or child welfare officials after their children were spotted alone but unharmed—playing in parks or left for minutes in a car parked outside a store—activities that could pass for typical or harmless but now are perceived by some as unacceptable.” Most can agree that calling DCFS for such behavior is ludicrous, and the Tribune article notes that some advocacy groups, as well as parents, have called for reforming the standards that merit DCFS intervention. Is this a good idea?

In my work, I have had frequent opportunities to interact with DCFS. I’ve seen several patients who were also involved with DCFS, necessitating frequent verbal reports to their case manager as well as the occasional written document for court. I’ve called DCFS on a patient a few times. I can agree with the premise that DCFS is broken, but the fixes offered by the article are no solution.

To be blunt, increasing the standards for a DCFS intervention will lead to dead children. Maybe not now, maybe not even soon, but it will happen. In Illinois DCFS has historically moved with the prevailing political winds to either prioritize intact families or remove children at the first sign of abuse. If DCFS loosens their criteria, and a high-profile death of a child occurs, it will most likely not be parents like Widen who bear the burden of the resulting crackdown but rather the patients that I serve.

As ridiculous as Widen’s story may sound, her experience with DCFS is actually proof that the system is currently working. A case worker came out to interview the child, spoke to a few other authority figures, and closed the case within two weeks. If the person who made the call to the hotline did so with malicious intent, they can be prosecuted.

We do need to reform DCFS, but not in the way that the Tribune proposes. Agencies that handle DCFS cases have a 40 percent annual turnover rate, a staggering figure that leads to little continuity in cases. I’ve worked with patients who have worked with four DCFS caseworkers over a span of a year or two. This inevitably drags out their cases which causes them further suffering and costs the state money. The racial disparity among children involved with DCFS is stark; African American children make up 15 percent of the child population of the state of Illinois but 34 percent of DCFS’ caseload. Finally, according to a recent study, DCFS is least effective in addressing cases of neglect which is troubling as 75 percent of interventions are initiated for just that reason.

Children are deeply vulnerable, and we have a duty to protect them and their innocence. We should consider reforming DCFS to address the health of the agencies that handle such cases, reduce inequality, and make interventions more effective for families. Those efforts will prove to be far more successful while also keeping children safe.


Russell, J.R., Kerwin, C., & Halverson, J.L. (2018). Is child protective services effective? Children and Youth Services Review 84 (Jan. 2018), pp. 185-192.

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