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State Child Welfare Agency Gutted

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The state's child-welfare agency, preparing to cut almost 200 employees amid a budget crisis, says it needs remaining staff members punching in on overtime to investigate child abuse, The Associated Press has learned.

In an e-mail sent Monday and obtained by the AP, the Department of Children and Family Services told the union representing workers that it will lose 27 of 39 investigators at its Maywood office to layoff or reassignment. The agency says it needs other Cook County investigators to fill in.

Union officials and children's advocates say they're flabbergasted the agency would make such a request when it's cutting staff.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said DCFS management asked permission to call other workers in on overtime, but the union refused. AFSCME, which represents DCFS workers, claims the agency already is understaffed and has caseloads that exceed limits set by a 17-year-old court order.

"It's nonsensical and it's dangerous. It puts kids more at risk. The department is already far too short of staff and the stakes couldn't be higher," AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich has refused to sign legislation that the General Assembly sent him providing money to sustain jobs - more than 320 in all - that he plans to cut Nov. 30 at DCFS, the Department of Human Services, and other agencies.

The reductions are part of $1.4 billion Blagojevich sliced from an out-of-balance budget in June. Then in September, lawmakers sent him legislation to restore some of them, including sparing the layoffs, with $230 million - mostly taken from state accounts set aside for special purposes.

But Blagojevich has balked because the national economy has further dampened the fiscal outlook. He said Tuesday the budget gap would be $2 billion and asked legislative permission for emergency budget authority to cut more.

Asked about the e-mail, Lindall said it was a DCFS request to use remaining Cook County-based staff investigators to help out in Maywood, just west of Chicago, which will lose 69 percent of its staff members who receive allegations of child abuse and neglect and review them to determine whether they're true.

Under its contract with the state, AFSCME must approve required overtime, Lindall said. A DCFS spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

"The system is being stretched to limits beyond what is healthy for kids," said Sean Noble, spokesman for Voices for Illinois Children, which joined AFSCME and other groups last week at a rally urging Blagojevich to sign the restoration legislation.

AFSCME claims its analysis of DCFS numbers shows the agency regularly violates a 1991 consent decree that limits the numbers of new cases assigned monthly to investigators and caseworkers.

Benjamin Wolf, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer in the case, believes that's true in some cases, but said he is gathering statistics on the matter. He was concerned when told of the overtime memo.

"For an investigator, his or her job is finding out quickly whether a child has been abused or neglected and then taking appropriate action to make sure a child is safe," Wolf said, "If caseloads get very high, children are in danger."

If caseloads are exceeding court-ordered limits, the ACLU might return to court to remedy the problem, he said. The organization also is worried about follow-up caseworkers' workload.

State law requires investigations into abuse and neglect allegations to start within 24 hours of receiving the complaint. In his latest review, issued last spring for the year that ended in June 2007, Auditor General William Holland reported that DCFS missed that deadline 179 times out of almost 68,000 reports, or less than 1 percent of the time.

That was up from the previous year, but lower than most years in the past decade.