Thursday, November 1, 2012

Chicago, IL: Experts: DCFS could have done more to prevent child's death

Five months after a South Side father was accused of beating and choking his girlfriend while she held their son, the baby was found dead, floating faceup near his 2-year-old brother in a bathtub. The father told police he left the boys unattended for about 10 minutes while he went for a smoke. As authorities investigate the Sept. 24 drowning death of Jayshaun Strong, a Tribune review of confidential case records raises questions about whether state and contractual child welfare workers did enough to ensure the boys' safety. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services monitored the family for several months after a hotline call reporting violence in the couple's relationship. The young mother repeatedly was warned that the state could take custody of her children if she and the father continued to resist services. The telltale signs of trouble included allegations of domestic violence, a sibling's broken leg, uncooperative parents and a father with a long criminal history. The newspaper also found that a DCFS investigator who was assigned the case the morning after the hotline call didn't do any follow-up work for a month. A Tribune investigation this year has examined a number of child deaths and showed how holes in the state's child safety net contributed to them, including slow and inadequate responses by front-line workers, violations of policies and management mistakes. DCFS has blamed budget challenges and worker error. State leaders have further slashed the agency's funding. Considering the litany of troubling facts in Jayshaun's case, experts say workers should have at least petitioned the Cook County child protection court to try to force the parents to cooperate with services or face losing custody of their children. "This is egregious," said Dr. Jill Glick, who established the child protective services team at the University of Chicago Comer Children's Hospital. "Domestic violence is a huge red flag," she said. "Family violence is progressive, and while maybe the first incident was minor, it is a signal for abuse and risk. This death could have been prevented." It wasn't until after Jayshaun died that DCFS took protective custody of his sibling and sought court intervention. DCFS officials said they are continuing to investigate how the case was handled but have declined to discuss specifics. The agency, meanwhile, has temporarily placed Jayshaun's brother in the care of Denise Mayberry, his maternal grandmother. Mayberry said she was never contacted during the DCFS investigation, argued that state officials should have done more to intervene. "I'm just upset because all anyone had to do was come to me and have me take my grand babies for a while until my daughter sorted some things out," Mayberry said.

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