Selle: Pop tax defeat in Cook County should embolden timid voters

That loud sound you hear is the grinding and gnashing by elected officials across Illinois since Cook County residents chalked up a victory on behalf of taxpayers everywhere.

The Cook County’s controversial “sweetened” beverage tax was repealed after a taxpayer revolt the size few have ever witnessed in the Land of Lincoln. Usually, citizens just accept new taxes, suck it up and merely gripe about how expensive it is to live in Illinois.

But this time, normally timorous taxpayers stood their ground and said they weren’t going to take it anymore. The Cook County tax rebellion should be a cautionary tale for public bodies across the region.

Perhaps it was the blatant falsehood that the pop tax was enacted for health reasons. Or maybe Cook County residents have suffered long enough with what political scientists call “tax fatigue,” paying some of the highest taxes in the state.

Cook County taxes may be high, but of course the Illinois county with the highest property taxes is Lake County, according to the Illinois Policy Institute. Lake County property taxes — with a median of nearly $7,000 annually — rank 21st highest in the U.S., and tops in the Midwest.

That ranking doesn’t consider the other various taxes we pay to make it through a normal day. In comparison, Cook County residents face a median of about $4,500 annually to live in their homes.

On the other hand, they have all sorts of growing add-on taxes. Like a wheel tax on vehicles, a 10.25 percent sales tax — one of the highest in the U.S. — and other levies. For a few months, they had that “sweetened” beverage tax.

While prodded by the beverage industry — which Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle unsuccessfully tried to label “Big Soda,” like big government is the little guy — potential voters did the one thing that scares elected officials: They started writing, emailing, faxing and calling their county commissioners to express dissatisfaction with the pop tax. They started shopping in neighboring counties.

It wasn’t only pop drinkers from tony North Shore communities. Nope, consumers from across Cook County pummeled their commissioners into repealing the tax. And they didn’t care that urging officials to renege on the tax means there’s a $200 million hole in the Cook County budget.

With one anti-tax win notched, will Cook County taxpayers pour over the other sin taxes and fees they pay? One can only hope.

Just days after the pop tax revolt was sorted out, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed hiking the city’s amusement tax on large venues and increasing the city’s tax on cell phones and landlines. These guys just don’t get it.

Not that officials in Lake County are less tax happy.

Nearly every Lake County community has a litany of add-on taxes and fees residents pay little attention to because most are buried in the fine print of their monthly bills.

For instance, there’s city and village excise taxes on cell phones, internet access, cable usage. There’s amusement and entertainment taxes on theater, movie tickets and, in Gurnee, an admission tax to Six Flags Great America.

Some officials in home=rule communities have hiked sales taxes on top of the federal gasoline and regional mass transit taxes we pay at the pump. Of course, the state hasn’t been shy about those “hidden” taxes, either.

Illinois is only one of seven states in the U.S. that charges sales tax on gasoline. There’s telecomm taxes, a state 9-1-1 tax on phone bills; liquor and cigarette taxes; state taxes on electricity and natural gas usage, along with a state gas revenue tax on suppliers of natural gas, who pass that charge along to consumers.

With off-presidential elections next year, voters need to stop being timid and hold candidates’ accountable for the taxes they’ve supported in the past. They need to question their elected representatives about their future taxing plans. You know they have them.

Charles Selle is a former News-Sun reporter, political editor and editor.

Twitter @sellenews

Selle: Pop tax defeat in Cook County should embolden timid voters

Child deaths spike after DCFS privatizes ‘intact family services’

The 5-year-old girl was found dead in the bathtub with shallow water framing her cherubic face and open eyes.

The state Department of Children and Family Services had conducted two abuse investigations into Verna Tobicoe’s Southeast Side home in the months before her death in May 2015. The agency also had hired a nonprofit group to make frequent visits and conduct safety checks on Verna and two siblings.

Even as Verna was hospitalized with a broken arm and her older brother repeatedly appeared at hospital emergency rooms or doctors’ offices with suspicious lacerations and bruises, a caseworker for the nonprofit organization filed cheerful reports saying the kids were safe.

And then 44-pound Verna became part of a growing pattern of similar fatalities: She was one of 15 Illinois children to die of abuse or neglect from 2012 through last year in homes receiving “intact family services” from organizations hired by DCFS, a Tribune investigation found.

There was only one such child death under the intact family services program during the previous five years from 2007 through 2011, according to DCFS records released to the Tribune under the Freedom of Information Act.

The mission of intact family services, which roughly 2,700 children are receiving statewide, is to offer counseling, resources and oversight to keep families together, instead of putting children through another trauma by removing them from the home and placing them with strangers.

The spike in deaths began in 2012 after DCFS completely privatized the program, putting the care of families in the hands of nonprofit groups but doing little to evaluate the quality of their work, give them guidance and resources, or hold them accountable when children were hurt or put at risk, the Tribune found.

Verna Tobicoe was one of 15 Illinois children to die of abuse or neglect from 2012 through 2016 in h

The girlfriend of Verna’s father is now awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges in the girl’s death. Authorities found lacerations in Verna’s liver and intestines as well as a skull fracture and bruises across her body from repeated blows. Lisamarie Villasana, 29, has pleaded not guilty and told police that Verna hit her head after slipping on spilled Gatorade.

The agency was rattled by a similar death in April, when 17-month-old Semaj Crosby was found dead in her Joliet Township home after DCFS had conducted more than 10 abuse investigations into the family and used the intact family services program to send a caseworker for periodic visits.

Illinois’ new child welfare director, Beverly “B.J.” Walker, said she was alarmed by the Tribune’s finding on the surge of child fatalities in intact family services cases as well as by a sharply critical report from the DCFS Inspector General on Verna’s death.

Walker recently asked her staff to provide reports on the abuse or neglect of any child in the intact services program and said she was shocked to discover that at least 10 percent of children were reportedly mistreated while receiving those services. “That’s very high. … I can tell you this, it happens too much,” Walker told the Tribune.

The Inspector General’s report, which has not been made public but was examined by the Tribune, determined that DCFS conducted cursory and ineffective investigations into a series of abuse allegations in the months before Verna’s death. DCFS also inexplicably failed to evaluate whether the father’s girlfriend, Villasana, needed therapy or assistance — even though she was serving as the children’s primary caretaker. And DCFS did not consider her as a possible perpetrator when children were hurt, although she often was the only adult in the home.

Kathy Grzelak, the new chief of Kaleidoscope 4 Kids, the group that served Verna’s family, keeps a laminated prayer card from the girl’s funeral pinned to her office bulletin board — a reminder of her organization’s painful failures.

The wake was crowded with family, Grzelak recalled, and the girl in the tiny open casket was dressed in a glittering blue dress to resemble the fearless princess Elsa from her favorite movie, “Frozen.” Grzelak said only faint traces of Verna’s bruises could be seen through the mortician’s makeup.

Injury after injury

The story of Verna’s short life is told in confidential child welfare case files, the DCFS Inspector General’s report, separate police and court records and interviews with several of her relatives.

Following two separate investigations into squalor and neglect of her home — one unfounded and the other confirmed — Verna’s parents split up, and DCFS placed the children with their father, Villasana and their new baby in 2014. In August of that year, DCFS referred the children to Kaleidoscope for intact family services. At the time, Verna was 4 years old, her brother was 6 and her sister was 9.

The state agency directed Kaleidoscope to ensure the children got proper medical care; to help their father access Medicaid, food stamps and government cash assistance; to refer him to parenting classes and other programs, and also to help the children’s biological mother — even though she had only minimal contact with the children after they left her home.

Kaleidoscope did a lot for the children. The caseworker brought them winter coats, provided a $70 gift card to buy treatments for their head lice, and tapped state funds for $1,350 when their father fell behind on his rent, records show. When Verna’s older sister was not allowed to attend school because her immunizations were out of date, Kaleidoscope took her to the doctor.

The DCFS Inspector General’s report, which has not been made public but was examined by the Tr

But one crucial omission threatened to doom the arrangement from the start: DCFS failed to include the father’s girlfriend, Villasana, in its service plan. She was the children’s primary caretaker while the father worked night shifts at a local pharmacy and some days on construction sites, according to the Inspector General’s report and interviews with officials and relatives. But Villasana was never put on the Kaleidoscope caseworker’s radar, according to those records and interviews.

“My plan was not even constructed to serve her. There was no information leading up to Lisa being the caretaker,” the former Kaleidoscope caseworker, Stephanie Lynell Ivey, told the Tribune in an interview. She subsequently left the agency and now works as a special education classroom assistant.

Suspicious injuries to the children began almost immediately, records show. That August, Verna was taken to a hospital with a broken arm — a “spiral fracture” that often indicates abuse by twisting.

DCFS opened an abuse investigation after being notified by the hospital. But even though Villasana was the only caretaker in the home at the time, she was not investigated as a potential perpetrator. Instead, the DCFS investigation focused on the father. And because he was at work when Verna was injured, DCFS termed the abuse allegation “unfounded” and closed the case.

State officials also did not tell Kaleidoscope about the hotline call regarding Verna’s broken arm. Ivey did subsequently file a note saying Verna was wearing a cast, but she accepted Villasana’s explanation that Verna had fallen.

Ivey told the Tribune she was operating under the assumption that DCFS had evaluated the home where the children were placed and that it was safe.

Then, starting in October 2014, educators, relatives and medical professionals began notifying DCFS of a series of injuries to Verna’s brother, along with their suspicions the children were being mistreated.

Kindergarten teacher April Palacios called the DCFS hotline that month to report that Verna’s brother “came to school today with bruising all over his arm that looked like a hand print,” DCFS records show. She emailed photographs of the injuries to DCFS and also reported a separate laceration on the boy’s face.

Children and adults in the home gave sharply divergent accounts of how the boy was bruised, with some saying he fell while climbing a closet door frame like Spider-Man, and others that he tripped over his sister’s princess slipper and hit a dresser drawer, according to DCFS and police records.

Palacios felt her concerns were never taken seriously, she told the Tribune. “It was so unfair,” she said. “This was preventable.”

Ivey, of Kaleidoscope, did take the boy to a doctor after Palacios reported the bruise on his arm and a cut on his face to DCFS, but the caseworker did not tell the doctor about Palacios’ hotline call, and the doctor was unaware of any suspicions of abuse, records show.

Over the next several weeks, the boy’s father notified Ivey several times that the boy had new head gashes or bruises after slips and falls around the house. But her checkups typically came days later, after the injuries had faded.

As she wrote in one brief report: “Upon seeing the children there were no signs of abuse or neglect. All the children appeared to be happy and healthy.”

Ivey says today: “There was no sign of any physical abuse. I never observed it or witnessed it.”

DCFS did open an investigation, but it was cursory — and again targeted the father and not the main caretaker, Villasana. The DCFS investigators interviewed all three siblings, their father and Villasana in less than an hour at the family home, one case note shows.

In finding allegations of abuse against the father to be unfounded, the DCFS supervisor wrote: “Minor denied he was injured by his father. Father reported that he was at work at the time of the injury.”

Because DCFS and Kaleidoscope never recognized Villasana as the primary caregiver, they never learned that Villasana felt overwhelmed by her new child care responsibilities, according to subsequent DCFS reports and interviews with her relatives.

Lisamarie Villasana, 29, girlfriend of Verna Tobicoe’s father, is awaiting trial on first-degr

Before Verna and her siblings arrived, Villasana had been caring only for her own newborn. Now she had three additional youngsters who were extraordinarily demanding. Two showed signs of learning and developmental disabilities, records shows, and all had been raised until then in a chaotic home with little adult supervision.

Just days before Verna’s death, Villasana temporarily left the home because of the stress, according to a police report and relatives. She also had attempted suicide in recent months by taking pills and drinking bleach.

“It was just too much for one person to take care of those four kids,” said Villasana’s stepfather, Juan Bautista.

Checking a box

DCFS officials completely privatized the intact program in 2012 amid a deep financial crisis as well as persistent government management problems — families were getting services for three and four years without seeing any real improvement, for example.

But as the state agency’s role shifted from providing direct services to overseeing and managing nonprofit contractors, DCFS simply failed at its new task, agency director Walker told the Tribune.

“When we did that privatization, we … more or less just sent cases over and we didn’t have any expectations — or any good expectations — about what (the nonprofits) were going to do,” said Walker, who took the helm of DCFS in June as its 10th director or acting director since 2011.

DCFS does send monitors to the nonprofits’ offices four times a year — but Grzelak, of Kaleidoscope, said they only look at paperwork to make sure files are complete and rarely try to gauge the quality or impact of the agency’s work.

“We can check a box and say, ‘We did our three home visits.’ But what did we do in that visit? What did we accomplish?” Grzelak said.

Kaleidoscope also never learns what the DCFS monitors find in those inspections, Grzelak said. “There is nothing in writing. There is no accountability. When are we going to get a more robust conversation about how we are doing?” she said. “There should be no secretiveness.”

Walker said she has begun reforming the program by hiring more child protective staff and increasing DCFS’s oversight and supervision of the nonprofits. “We are laser-beam focused. We’re following up to make sure that our actions are leading to improvements.”

She also said she is looking for additional financial resources for the intact services program. The rate paid to agencies such as Kaleidoscope has not increased for at least five years, according to providers. Last year, Gzelak said, Kaleidoscope had to supplement the $730,000 it received from DCFS with $98,000 from other sources to cover basic costs related to intact services.

Caseworkers, meanwhile, are often poorly trained, underpaid and burdened with overwhelming caseloads.

“We have young workers who are not adequately trained who are surviving and doing what is in front of them every day,” Grzelak said.

The job can be “scary, heartbreaking and stressful,” Ivey said.

Assigned to assist both of Verna’s biological parents, Ivey was carrying 17 other cases at the time, nearly double the average of 10 recommended in the DCFS contract, according to Grzelak and Ivey.

The DCFS Inspector General determined that Ivey did not seem to understand the family or know how to counsel and assist them. Ivey disputed that.

“My role was to stabilize the family and make sure they had their basic needs met, and that’s what I did. Sometimes I would visit that home twice a week. I even gave them some of my own daughter’s hand-me-downs,” Ivey told the Tribune. “Intact is a short-term fix, and in that short time all you’re praying for as a worker is that nobody dies while this baby is on your watch.”

DCFS generally expects the nonprofits to close intact services cases within six months, and the agency’s contracts start to reduce payments at that point, even though Grzelak and other providers say families often still need help.

In the sixth month of Verna’s case, in January 2015, Kaleidoscope closed its file. “There are no concerns regarding the safety and well-being of the children,” a Kaleidoscope supervisor wrote.

Four months later, Verna was found in the bathtub dead.

Palacios, the teacher, said she was shattered by the news. “I started crying,” Palacios recalled. “What I feared most could happen, happened. I was very angry at DCFS because they had an investigation going on. They had visited the family.”

DCFS had conducted two abuse investigations into Verna Tobicoe’s home on Chicago’s South

Only after Verna’s death did DCFS investigators conduct forensic interviews with her siblings — taking them outside the home to question them separately about mistreatment, instead of interviewing them for a few minutes at home with their parents nearby.

In these sessions, the children readily described being whipped, kicked and abused by Villasana and other adults, records show.

On the way to one interview, Verna’s brother asked a DCFS investigator if Verna was ever coming back, according to confidential DCFS case notes. The investigator told the boy that Verna “is in his heart and all he had to do is think about her and close his eyes and he would see her.”

Verna’s older brother and sister now live with a foster family out of state.

Twitter @Poolcar4

Child deaths spike after DCFS privatizes ‘intact family services’

Morning Spin: Cook County soda tax ‘backlash’ will make other tax hikes hard, ratings agency warns

Welcome to Clout Street: Morning Spin, our weekday feature to catch you up with what’s going on in government and politics from Chicago to Springfield. Subscribe here.


The Cook County soda tax backlash and repeal could make it harder for the county, city and Chicago Public Schools to raise taxes or enact new ones, according to one Wall Street debt rating agency.

“The political backlash against the unpopular soda tax highlights the practical limitations on raising taxes, even if a government is legally permitted to do so,” Moody’s Investors Service analysts wrote in a report released Thursday. “This practical limitation is particularly critical for Chicago-area local governments, given the significant revenue needs of Cook County, the city of Chicago, CPS and other entities.”

Moody’s observation came a day after Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed a 2018 city budget that includes a $1.10-per-month increase in the current $3.90 emergency communications fee that’s charged on every land line and cellphone billed to a city address. The mayor’s proposal also includes a phased-in 20-cent increase to the current 52-cent tax on all trips using ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft.

Some aldermen who will be called on to vote on those taxes have said the soda tax repeal was on their minds as they weighed the mayor’s proposal.

“This whole idea of revenue-generating ideas has to stop,” 12th Ward Ald. George Cardenas said after Emanuel gave his budget speech. “We have to sit down at a table and talk about cost-cutting ideas.”

The Moody’s analysis noted that after the repeal, the county is looking for ways to plug a resulting $200 million hole in County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s 2018 budget proposal, concluding that budget cuts likely would be the answer.

The analysis also noted that there were “unique issues” surrounding the penny-an-ounce tax on sweetened beverages that’s now coming to an end Dec. 1. Those included the much-debated public health benefits of the tax, the hefty cost increases for the drinks and the troubled rollout of the tax.

“While these challenges would not apply to other types of tax increases, any future tax hikes in the wake of the soda tax repeal will likely be met with some political opposition, exacerbating budget pressures for Cook County and other area local governments,” the analysts wrote. (Hal Dardick)


What’s on tap

*Mayor Emanuel has no public events.

*Gov. Bruce Rauner will attend a Hispanic state employees conference in Chicago, a community college manufacturing day event in Chicago, an event at the DuPage Children’s Museum, and the opening of the new Apple store at Michigan Avenue along the Chicago River.


From the notebook

*‘Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world’: Email solicitations for political support are frequent, but it’s rare that a candidate invites someone out to go to the movies. Still, that’s the latest missive from Democratic governor candidate Chris Kennedy.

“Join us for a night at the movies,” the subject line reads in asking people to join Kennedy and wife Sheila for the Chicago premiere of Kennedy sister Rory’s new film, “Take Every Wave,” at 7 p.m. Friday at Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St.

Rory Kennedy is a filmmaker, and her latest work tracks the life and career of big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton. After the screening, the brother and sister Kennedys will hold a question-and-answer session with the audience. Popcorn is extra. (Rick Pearson)

*On the Sunday Spin: Tribune reporter Rick Pearson will recap the Aurora University forum of Democratic governor candidates. In addition, he will speak with state Rep. Anna Moeller, D-Elgin, Melissa Josephs of Women Employed and Wendy Pollack of the Shriver Poverty Law Center on attempts to override Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of pay-equity legislation. The “Sunday Spin” airs from 7 to 9 a.m. on WGN-720 AM.


What we’re writing

*Senate committee advances Lausch to be next U.S. attorney in Chicago.

*Kennedy assails party leaders with government, elections proposals.

*Illinois Supreme Court rules teen cannot be tried by jury in Endia Martin’s killing.

*U. of I., Army Research Lab will join U. of C. in new Polsky Center tower.

*Illinois unemployment rate stayed at 5 percent in September.


What we’re reading

*Weather Service forecasts mild winter, jinxing it, probably.

*He was the king of late night, but David Letterman doesn’t miss it “for a second.”

*“Hiya, Homer!”: Moe’s Tavern-themed pop-up bar comes to Lincoln Park for Halloween.


Follow the money 

*Track Illinois campaign contributions in real time here and here


Beyond Chicago

*Trump chief of staff defends call to Army widow.

*Ask Seattle what 50,000 more Amazon workers would mean.

*Trump interviews U.S. attorney candidates for New York.

*CIA director: North Korea months from perfecting nuclear capabilities.

Morning Spin: Cook County soda tax ‘backlash’ will make other tax hikes hard, ratings agency warns

Amid program uncertainty, Evanston medical marijuana dispensary granted shorter lease term

The licensed medical marijuana dispensary in downtown Evanston asked to to renew its rental agreement with the city for one year instead of three to accommodate uncertainty in the state’s medical cannabis program

PharmaCann opened a location in 2015 on the ground floor of the city-owned Maple self-park garage at 1804 Maple Ave. The dispensary was permitted under the state’s four-year pilot program, which ends on Dec. 31, 2017. The Illinois Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act allows for legal cultivation and distribution of medicinal-grade cannabis – more commonly known as marijuana – for use by certain people with approved medical conditions, according to terms of the state law.

PharmaCann’s lease also expires on Dec. 31, according to city information on the lease. Dispensary officials asked to renew the lease for one year instead of the three years in the initial rental agreement. That would mean the tenancy would run to December 31, 2018 instead of the same date in 2020, all to allow for PharmaCann to evaluate the state of the program after the pilot project ends and react accordingly, officials said.

Evanston aldermen unanimously approved the request at their Sept. 25 meeting.

PharmaCann, based in Oak Park, opened Evanston’s first medical marijuana dispensary after the state program was approved. To buy marijuana at the dispensary patients must first register with the state, according to Evanston Review reports.

That process includes submitting fingerprints and a form signed by a physician certifying the patient has one of the dozens of qualifying conditions listed in the Illinois Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act.

PharmaCann rents the space from the City of Evanston for $84,000 per year, according to terms of the lease.

Twitter @GenevieveBook

Amid program uncertainty, Evanston medical marijuana dispensary granted shorter lease term

STATE AFFAIRS: The state makes a terrible parent

I cringe every time I see a news story, as I do frequently, about a helpless child who is killed by her mother’s boyfriend, or whatever, all while under the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

I wince not because I doubt the professionalism or caring of the DCFS staff, but because they have absolutely impossible jobs.

The latest tragedy to hit the news is about a burly 25-year-old man who assaulted a 59-year-old DCFS female caseworker in Carroll County in northwestern Illinois. The woman suffered serious brain injuries and was in a coma at last report. It’s a tough, dangerous business.

You and I are in effect substitute parents (via the powers we have given our state government) for 15,000 children ages birth to 18 who, for a variety of reasons, are outside the homes of their parent(s).

We ask DCFS to care for the children while the agency searches for adoption or foster family care. When unable to find such, many children languish in impersonal group homes until they “age out” at 18.

Other children are under the supervision of the court. I have a good friend who volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate. She visits an assigned family regularly and goes into court to provide her observations as to what is in the best interest of the child(ren).

My friend’s most recent case has to do with a family of six children by four fathers. Would you imagine those children are a bit bewildered, probably worse, by what is going on in their world, with boyfriends in and out all the time?

DCFS has had a rocky history since its creation in 1960. Again, not because the staff aren’t trying, but because caseworkers have often had impossible caseloads of 250 troubled families each.

Caseworkers are modestly paid yet need the wisdom of Solomon in making a recommendation, as they frequently must, either to let a child remain in a family setting that may have been abusive in the past or take the child from the family.

Over thousands of such decisions, while each handling as many as 250 cases at a time, these frontline workers sometimes make mistakes. We read about the tragedies in the papers and become outraged.

Since 1988, DCFS has been overseen from a distance by the federal court, which monitors a “consent decree” between DCFS and the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. DCFS agrees to meet certain performance guidelines; sometimes it does, sometimes not.

When it doesn’t, attorney Ben Wolf of the Illinois ACLU, who has overseen DCFS for three decades, screams to the high heavens in court. So, the judge says to the state of Illinois, “You cannot cut anymore out of the DCFS budget,” or whatever.

Even so, DCFS employee levels decreased from 2,910 in 2010 to 2,572 in 2015, the last year for which I find good information. The agency also has been a revolving door for 10 directors in the course of the past six years. A stable agency it is not.

Even with the best leadership, there always will be tragedies at DCFS, and screaming newspaper headlines. We ask the agency to make whole again families that have fallen apart, if ever they had their act together, and to repair children who have often known nothing but dysfunction and abuse.

Our challenge is to reduce the number of, most often, single-parent families in which DCFS must intervene.

Though I am probably guilty of seeing the past through rose-colored glasses, I think communities of my childhood more than half a century ago did a better, though imperfect, job of imbuing citizens with norms that encouraged the nuclear family. Of course, good jobs for men and women were more available then than today, which helped.

What to do, today?

A friend of mine believes we should require parenting classes in high school for girls and boys. Yet I fear we ask high schools to do too much as it is in a short school day.

Certainly, parenting classes might be required as a condition of receiving state benefits.

“Love goes a long way,” a former DCFS caseworker observed to me recently, “but that is often in short supply.”

I honestly don’t have any great ideas. I do know we — the state — make terrible parents.

I am impressed with comments readers direct my way. What do you think might be done? I’m at


STATE AFFAIRS: The state makes a terrible parent

DCFS director talks reforms, remaining challenges at community forum

Beverly Walker, director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, fields questions from community leaders and the public Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, at St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Joliet, Ill.

Beverly Walker, director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, fields questions from community leaders and the public Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, at St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Joliet, Ill.

JOLIET – The director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, Beverly “BJ” Walker, was in Joliet on Tuesday to talk to community members about reforms implemented in the months after Sema’j Crosby’s death.

The forum was at St. John Missionary Baptist Church and organized by the members of SAFE (Safety Alliance for Families Everywhere). Walker answered questions from various community members for two hours. They touched on reforms already taking place within DCFS, as well as remaining challenges.

“I’m impressed,” said Loretta Westbrooks, a member of SAFE. “I really think she’s going to make changes, but I’m going to be there to watch to make sure that the changes are being made.”

Staffing and workload

One of the main issues Walker addressed was the need for more caseworkers, specifically at the DCFS office in Joliet, as well as reforming hiring practices.

Walker said eight newly hired investigators started work Monday. Four more caseworkers will be starting within the next 30 days.

DCFS is trying to not just keep up with the rate of turnover of caseworkers, but to better anticipate vacancies and replace them quickly by hiring more than they might need at one time. Walker described the process as hiring with a “pipeline mentality.”

While Walker could not say how many caseworkers currently were in the Joliet office, there still are three vacancies to be filled, as well as two vacancies for bilingual caseworkers.

“That, for me, would fill the Joliet office with 100 percent staffing,” Walker said about filling those remaining vacancies.

In the meantime, DCFS is sending about nine workers from other regions to work in Joliet while new staff members are being hired and trained. They also are bringing on retired caseworkers for up to 75 days in a year to pick up the slack of about 12 to 15 cases a worker.

There also are challenges for DCFS’ contractor agencies, such as Intact Family Services, which performs short-term in-home intervention programs for families who have come to the attention of DCFS.

The type of workers these agencies hire are typically younger, less experienced recent college graduates. They also have a very high turnover rate because of low pay and workers applying to better paid jobs within DCFS after they acquire the minimum two years of experience.

Communication and data

Walker also highlighted changes and difficulties with communication and sharing of data between DCFS, its contractor agencies and other relevant partners, such as police departments.

“It has amazed me,” Walker said. “We do not have a central, coordinated point of data management. We are not managed by our data. We fly blind.”

DCFS formed a group to accumulate all the data it collects to help its investigators on the front end. DCFS also has sought technical support on how to better measure or even determine what to measure to help caseworkers, although Walker admits these changes will take time to implement.

Investigators also will be going out on high-risk cases with the contracted agencies such as Intact Family Services.

Walker pointed out this issue was at the heart of Sema’j’s case because, according to the DCFS report released in May, since 2015, there were 11 reports filed related to that household. The report stated it was not clear that all pertinent information regarding Sema’j and her siblings’ mother and caregivers in the house was clarified and processed between DCFS investigators and the Intact caseworker.

Many to blame

While Walker talked about what DCFS was doing in terms of reforms, she wanted to be clear about the multiple, complex factors which led to the death of Sema’j.

“It’s easy, given what has happened, to put DCFS out front and say, ‘We should have done [something],’ ” Walker said. “There are multiple parties that should have done something different.”

She wanted the community to understand the many complexities DCFS deals with to determine whether to take a child from their home and family. Walker insisted that while many are to blame for Sema’j’s death, she wants DCFS to do what it can to change.

“We’re not always going to get it right,” Walker said. “But we should always be accountable when we get it wrong, and you should try to hold us accountable.”

DCFS director talks reforms, remaining challenges at community forum


Last year, Illinois enacted a foresighted law designed to provide cleaner air, more jobs and lower energy bills for the state’s residents. Now, a company that owns coal-fired Illinois power plants is pushing to weaken clear-air rules in a way that would undermine those goals. The Illinois Pollution Control Board should take a deep breath and refuse to go along.


A vote for this idea would be a big step backward. The state’s air, including in Chicago, would get dirtier and the transition away from a coal would be detoured.

Last year, stakeholders ranging from environmentalists to utilities laboriously finished hammering out an agreement that led to the Illinois Future Jobs Act, a law designed to improve residents’ health and help make Illinois a leader in renewable energy — all while reining in utility bills.

Since then, however, two utilities have engaged in what amounts to a counterattack.

First, the Downstate utility Ameren, which supplies gas and electricity to central and southern Illinois, persuaded the Illinois Commerce Commission to let it lower its energy efficiency goals.

Now, Dynegy Energy, which owns eight coal plants in central and southern Illinois, wants the Illinois Pollution Control Board to scrap the limits on the rate of pollution each of its plants can emit. Dynegy, which is also reported to be seeking rate increases in the Legislature, proposes instead that existing annual caps apply to its plants as a group, which would allow it give its dirtier plants more leeway to belch out soot and other pollutants that cause smog and acid rain. The proposal comes as Dynegy faces a deadline it agreed to in 2006 to reduce air pollution.

In classic example of the problems with revolving-door government, Dynegy has worked with Gov. Bruce Rauner’s director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency — a former lobbyist for a trade association that represents Dynegy — to draw up the plan. According to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office, the revised pollution caps would provide a financial incentive to Dynegy to actually increase pollution if they chose.

Among other issues at a hearing Thursday, Dynegy will ask the Illinois Pollution Control Board to rush through the decision-making process. But there is no need to hurry this through without full input and careful consideration. Illinois does not face any shortage of power generation capacity.

The environment is under regulatory assault from the Trump administration, which is intent on chopping away protections. As a result, states must become even more vigilant about protecting their air and water. Plans such as Dynegy’s should be rejected.

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