CHICAGO – On December 10, State Senator Julie Morrison (D-Deerfield) convened a special hearing of a Human Services subcommittee to investigate why Illinois saw a sharp spike in deaths resulting from child abuse and neglect last year and to look into a particularly troubling case in which a young Cook County girl – Gizzell Ford – died despite DCFS involvement in her short life.

Morrison was looking not to assign blame, but to find solutions.

“I was troubled by a number of recent media reports that indicated children were slipping through the cracks of our system,” said Morrison, who has been working to find ways to improve the Department of Children and Family Services’ performance for months. “I know we’ll never prevent every death, but we should always strive to do better.”

Several of the experts who testified before the committee, including DCFS Inspector General Denise Kane and pediatrician Dr. Michele Lorand of Stroger Hospital, explained that the recent spike in deaths from abuse and neglect does not reflect an actual increase in deaths, but is instead due to the agency changing the definition of what qualifies as a death from abuse or neglect. Specifically, DCFS has started tracking children who die when their caregivers accidentally suffocate them in their sleep due to improper sleeping arrangements.

Still, Senator Morrison felt that several valuable suggestions came out of the hearing. Many experts emphasized that law enforcement agencies – particularly in Cook County – and mental health care providers need to get their reports to DCFS investigators much more quickly. Investigators often receive these reports days before their final reports are due – nearly two months after the initial complaint is filed.

Dr. Lorand and her colleague Dr. Jill Glick both suggested creating consistent teams of doctors, law enforcement officers and DCFS investigators to work together to investigate cases, perhaps using a pilot program at a Chicago-area hospital.

Inspector General Kane recommended introducing legislation to ensure that children who are potentially being abused by their parents continue to have access to other adults they trust – often extended family members, teachers or neighbors. These adults can help DCFS determine if the situation is getting worse for the child. This access would likely come in the form of some sort of legally enforceable visitation rights for these trusted adults.

Coming out of the Gizzell Ford case was the realization that domestic relations courts, which deal with issues of custody, child support and sometimes domestic abuse, don’t have a formal relationship with DCFS – a problem that several experts suggested remedying.

Ford was allegedly beaten and murdered by her father and grandmother after the father won custody rights following legal proceedings against the mother. Gizzell twice had contact with child protective services in the weeks leading up to her death. Once, she saw a doctor after complaining of sexual abuse and on another occasion, a DCFS worker visited her home.

“Many of the suggested solutions seem like they might have real legs,” Morrison said. “I look forward to reviewing these ideas and others at our final hearing next month.”

The final hearing of the subcommittee is scheduled for January 13 and will focus on potential legislation.