In Illinois, legislators have taken steps to try to improve the handling of child welfare cases in the state in the wake of the April 2019 death of five-year-old AJ Freund.
Administrators from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services have acknowledged that there were mistakes made in the agency’s handling of AJ’s case and have stepped up its training procedures and worked to reduce the caseloads of individual investigators. DCFS received a budget increase last year and has hired more than 200 additional staff.
As I mentioned in an earlier update post, the Illinois DCFS Inspector General’s report revealed that an horrifying 123 children who had contact with the agency between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019 died within 12 months of that contact. It’s clear to everyone that something needs to change, and fast.
Representative Steve Reick, a Republican from Woodstock, agrees. Prompted by AJ’s death, Rep. Reick, who has been part of a bipartisan legislative group examining the operation of DCFS, proposed House Bill 4886, which would create an agency in McHenry County that would handle local child welfare cases instead of DCFS. The legislation would be called AJ’s Law and would create a five-year pilot program in McHenry County that could be used as a model for the rest of Illinois to follow. The new agency, under the jurisdiction of local government, would be given all the powers and responsibilities of the Children and Family Services Act and the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act. Its purpose, according to Rep. Reick, would be “to provide more responsive, effective and efficient child welfare services to the people of this community.” Funding for the agency, which would employ 15 caseworkers and be overseen by an executive director appointed by the chairman of the McHenry County Board, would be provided by the state.
In addition, House Bill 5281, also known as the AJ Freund Act, has been presented by State Representatives Tom Weber (R-Lake Villa), Terri Bryant (R-Murphysboro), and Joe Sosnowksi (R-Rockford). The bill would give local law enforcement the ability to investigate allegations of child abuse or neglect, while current law exempts most immediate family or others living in the child’s home from being investigated by police and requires the investigation to be done by DCFS. Representative Bryant has also introduced House Bill 5417 to improve training on online reporting for mandated reporters. Also introduced by members of the House Republican Caucus is House Bill 4832, which addresses unfounded cases of neglect or abuse.
If any or all of these proposed laws were in place a year or two ago, little AJ might still be alive today, so getting these changes made immediately is imperative to save, potentially, the lives of even more abused or neglected Illinois children.
Click here to read my ongoing coverage of AJ’s case.
Click here to visit the Suffer the Little Children Podcast website; in episode 1, coming soon, I will cover AJ’s story. Stay tuned!
Sources: Chicago Tribune, Northwest Herald, Patch.com, MyStateline.com