Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law a $40 billion state budget this week that includes a hefty increase for the Department of Children and Family Services — resources that should be directed toward child welfare protection, not lost in a bureaucratic abyss.

The budget that begins July 1 includes a nearly 11 percent hike for DCFS, bringing the agency's total one-year appropriation to more than $1.3 billion. The increase was prompted in part by several heartbreaking child deaths, including that of 5-year-old Andrew "AJ" Freund of Crystal Lake, whose parents are charged in his murder. The courts, DCFS employees and lawmakers consistently have cited too-high caseloads as a chronic problem that puts little lives at risk, including AJ's.

The questions for new DCFS Acting Director Marc Smith: How carefully will the agency spend these taxpayer dollars? Will resources get directed to frontline services? Will there be appropriate oversight?

We ask because the same day Pritzker signed the budget, the Tribune's Christy Gutowski reported on allegations of inappropriate spending by a DCFS contractor.

An internal DCFS audit raised questions about Pilsen-based Child Link, which specializes in foster care and adoption services.

The organization's directors are disputing some claims from the audit. But DCFS is attempting to recoup about $100,000 in charges to the state for meals, sports tickets, parties and even traffic tickets.

The audit, and the increase in the state budget, should make even plainer to DCFS that the agency must put the maximum available dollars where they matter most: the protection of children.

That means more caseworkers. More investigators. Smaller caseloads. Not White Sox games or private club memberships or excessive meals, as the audit uncovered.

Seven years ago, Gutowski interviewed a DCFS caseworker who had been visiting his clients in Englewood on a holiday. He thought he might catch parents at home when they weren't expecting him, and he was worried about a domestic abuse situation and a special needs child.

They were two of nearly 40 families he was monitoring. Two of 40.

"How do I juggle the safety of all these kids and, God forbid, something happens in one of the cases? It's like Russian roulette," he told Gutowski.

Not much has changed in seven years. High caseloads continue to be a problem. DCFS officials this week said they plan to hire 301 new employees across the state, at every level, with the additional revenue. The "vast majority" will be frontline staff, the agency's spokesman said.

Yet roughly $10.8 million of the new money will pay for step increases for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, along with 5 percent cost-of-living raises for foster care providers, foster parents, providers who care for the most challenging families and residential care providers.

We're not opposed to pay raises. Social workers and providers who protect the state's most vulnerable children deserve fair wages. But the top priorities of the agency must be adding more workers to the front lines, reducing caseloads and improving training. That's a constant thread through more than a decade of problems at DCFS.

Pritzker listened. Lawmakers listened. DCFS got the money, and should spend it judiciously.

Chicago Tribune, June 6

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