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How Staffing Shortages May Be Affecting Illinois Children

Over the last months, we've written a series of columns for Route Fifty and elsewhere about the difficulties states and localities are having in staffing up. We've tended to focus on the reasons why they are short on qualified workers, and ways they can attract more. But it's important to go beyond the turnover data and look at the real-world ramifications of the current hiring and turnover crisis that real human beings can feel in their day to day lives.

An audit report that caught our eye this morning makes just that point. It was released by the Illinois Office of the Auditor General in May. The audit focused on Child Safety and Well-Being, and how well the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) was meeting the requirements of a 2019 public act, dubbed Ta’NaJa’s Law, which was designed to improve protections for children in the department’s care. The act was named for a two-year-old who died of dehydration, malnutrition and physical abuse six months after being returned to her mother’s care.

The audit makes it clear that the department has not yet been able to fulfill the requirements of the public act. It seems to us that one important reason may be because it simply doesn't have the staff to do so. A summary of the audit’s findings points out that 55% of the 6,037 positions listed within DCFS Operations are “categorized as unfunded.” Of 2,746 positions that are funded, 21% are vacant.

The audit contains a mildly-worded recommendation that staffing needs should be reassessed. But we think that may be a bit of an understatement.

For example, while the act requires Home Safety Checklists for homes in which a child is returned after being in foster care, the auditor’s sample showed the department could not provide 98% of the documents that the act required. While “aftercare services” were required for six months after a child was returned to a home, the auditor found that 58% of its sample did not have at least six months of these services.

Other issues included shortcomings in well-child pediatric visits, problems in immunization data and shortcomings in the Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System that made it difficult for auditors to otherwise test compliance with the 2019 act.

In the past, we’ve often noted staff capacity issues cited as the reason behind audit findings – most recently in a blog post, headlined "Understanding Understaffing" in March. In the coming months, we’ll be looking to see how much the lack of staff is having an impact on service delivery.

In the meantime, we can just hope, for Illinois' children's sake, that the audit there will help to focus the state on redoubling its efforts to get enough people to fulfill the promises the legislature has made.

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