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On a September afternoon last year, a state child welfare investigator drove into Alto Pass, a village in the rolling hills of Southern Illinois, to the home Alan Schott shared with his then-girlfriend and his two daughters. Someone had called the state’s child abuse hotline, claiming that Schott was neglecting the girls.

Though they were only 6 and 8, the girls knew enough to know why the investigator was at the door. The neglect allegation was at least the 10th report made to the state that Schott or the girls’ mother, who Schott had split up with several years before, was failing to properly care for them.

Schott’s elder daughter pleaded with her dad to “show them a couple things,” according to a recording he made of the encounter. “Just show them that we have electric. Here, I’ll show you that we have electric.”

Schott knew why the investigator was there, too. At 12, he had been taken from his parents and placed in foster care with relatives, including his grandmother; he didn’t return home for about two years. And though, with each of his daughters’ births, he had vowed to not let them fall into the child welfare system, by the time the investigator from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services came that day, the girls had already spent more than 2 1/2 years in foster care, and had only been back with their father for six months.

The investigator told Schott that there were concerns he was using methamphetamine, and school officials said his daughters were showing up to school dirty, according to court records. When he refused to let the investigator into the home or take a drug test — both of which, by state law, he is allowed to decline to do — she called the sheriff’s office for help.

Then she took the girls into temporary custody, which is within the discretion of DCFS investigators, within certain guidelines, to do. They were placed into foster care with Schott’s grandmother, the same woman who had cared for him when DCFS determined that his own parents could not, and who had cared for his girls when they had been placed in foster care before.

“I thought you guys were supposed to be for the kids, and for the families, but all you guys do is take them apart,” a frustrated Schott told the investigator. His elder daughter echoed: “Yeah, that’s all you do. That’s all you ever do.”

Alan Schott sits in his daughters’ bedroom at his ex-girlfriend’s home in Alto Pass, Illinois. Schott’s daughters, now ages 7 and 8, were living with the couple until they were taken by Illinois Department of Children and Family Services in September 2021. Credit: Whitney Curtis for Propublica

The Schotts are among thousands of families across Illinois who have moved in and out of the child welfare system — repeatedly investigated but often without getting the help they need to stabilize their lives. From January 2018 through June 2020, 33% of all confirmed reports of child maltreatment — about 17,500 cases — involved households with at least two previous investigations, according to DCFS investigative case data obtained and analyzed by The Southern Illinoisan and ProPublica.

Substantiated DCFS investigations involving families with at least two prior investigations

In far southern and southeastern Illinois, the rural area marked by poverty and industry decline that the Schotts have long called home, the rate of repeat investigations was 42%, the highest in the state. The region is served by DCFS's Marion office and its satellite offices.

Seen one way, those numbers aren’t surprising: They show that many families that come to the attention of DCFS continue to struggle. But among child welfare officials and academics, the volume of repeat cases is a sign that the system is failing to live up to its mission not only to protect children, but to “increase their families’ capacity to safely care for them.” The pattern of repeated investigations involving a single family or child victim is called “recurrence.”

Substantiated investigations in the Marion service area that involved families with at least two prior investigations

For decades, child welfare officials across the country have used recurrence rates as an indicator of an agency’s performance. Illinois has long had one of the highest recurrence rates in the nation, according to comparative data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (The most recent data available is for fiscal 2019.) The data measures confirmed maltreatment that recurs within six months, though both DCFS and the federal government note that there are caveats to the state-by-state comparisons because of differences in how maltreatment is defined and what circumstances prompt an investigation.

Recurrence is complex, driven by a variety of factors. But child welfare experts and families tied up in multiple investigations said DCFS’s resources aren’t adequate. Parents say that classes often aren’t helpful, drug counseling and mental health services can be hard to find, and direct financial aid is insufficient. And those problems have persisted for years.

For the past four years, DCFS’ inspector general, its internal watchdog, has called on the agency to ensure that families it has previously investigated are receiving the help they need. The U.S. Children’s Bureau, which provides funding and oversight to DCFS, has required voluminous corrective plans from DCFS detailing how it intends to improve child safety following investigations. The Illinois General Assembly and governor’s office have also pushed for improvement. When he took office in 2019, Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered a review of the agency’s chief program intended to stabilize families and prevent recurrence, known as Intact Family Services, and promised to “change the direction of DCFS.”

Despite that pledge, Illinois’ recurrence rate reached a 10-year high in fiscal 2020, according to University of Illinois researchers, who monitor DCFS under the terms of a decades-old consent decree intended to improve the department’s handling of children in its care. DCFS itself acknowledged three times in its most recent strategic plan that its recurrence rates are “unacceptable.”

“It should be a wake-up call for all of us that the same families are experiencing the same difficulties over and over again,” said Jerry Milner, a longtime advocate for better child welfare policies and former associate commissioner of the U.S. Children’s Bureau in the Trump administration.

“Child welfare is going out, nothing is changing and we’ve got the same set of circumstances,” Milner added. “That should be a strong signal for us to look a lot deeper into what is happening.”

State Sen. Julie Morrison, a Democrat from Lake Forest, suggested the problem is largely invisible to lawmakers. She said the only reports legislators receive on families investigated on multiple occasions relate to child deaths; they don’t get information about the huge volume of repeat neglect investigations. She called that dearth of information a “glaring problem.”

DCFS director Marc Smith said Illinois’ mandates for professionals such as teachers and social workers to report maltreatment accusations are “very aggressive,” leading to increases in confirmed cases of abuse. Nonetheless, he acknowledged the problem, saying the agency will do everything it can to “reduce the recurrence abuse and neglect rate.”

Smith, a Pritzker appointee, emphasized that grappling with the poverty, unemployment and substance abuse that drive neglect is not DCFS’ task alone. He said DCFS, its sister human service agencies and the nonprofit organizations that share in the challenge have faced funding issues in large part because of Illinois’ persistent budget turmoil, particularly during the administration of Pritzker’s predecessor, Bruce Rauner.

Child welfare advocates say that federal and state lawmakers have failed to make more funding available to help families with chronic troubles, and in recent years the department has turned to the default tool for child welfare agencies: removing children from struggling families. That has fueled a 120% surge in the number of children in foster care across the Marion service area over the past decade, even as the total child population in the area has declined. Overall, when children enter foster care in Illinois, they linger there longer than anywhere else in the nation.

“Unacceptable” Rates of Recurrence

For two decades, DCFS has been called out for failing to address how often families reenter the child welfare system.

Department of Health and Human Services’s Children’s Bureau

Federal performance reviews in 2003, 2010 and 2018 found that Illinois had failed to meet national goals regarding repeat child maltreatment.

Illinois’ DCFS

In its 2020-2024 Child and Family Services Plan), the agency itself found that children and families “experience an unacceptable rate of recurrence of maltreatment and maltreatment in care that has been increasing over time.”

Illinois Auditor General

In 2019, an audit ordered by the legislature identified numerous performance lapses that could contribute to recurrence. The 2021 follow-up found that DCFS had failed to implement several of the 13 recommendations from the 2019 audit.

University of Chicago

In a May 2019 review ordered by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, researchers at the University of Chicago found that DCFS’s Intact Family Services program, which the state relies on to stabilize troubled families, was hampered by frequent policy shifts, miscommunication and insufficient follow-up for “high-risk” cases.

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

The school’s Children and Family Research Center, which monitors the agency’s performance under a federal consent decree, reported that Illinois’ recurrence rate reached a new peak of more than 14% in fiscal 2020, following nearly a decade of steady increases.

So when a DCFS investigator showed up at Schott’s door in September to again try to determine if he was neglecting his children, there was a good chance they would return to foster care. Their journey through the child welfare system raises an important question: For all the attention DCFS has given this family — and the thousands of other families facing intractable problems such as poverty, joblessness and substance abuse — are his daughters any closer to finding stability than when the agency first entered their lives?

A Family Under Stress

Cases that lead to a child’s death have always made headlines and sent shock waves through the child welfare system. But beyond those headlines are far more children who survive chronic neglect, children deprived of the basic care a parent or caregiver is expected to provide.

“We chronicle the numbers of dead kids. We talk about them: So many kids died at the hands of their parents because of abuse and neglect. Those numbers are out there, and they’re horrific,” said Morrison, who chairs the Senate’s Health Committee. “But it’s the kids you’re talking about, who are surviving, that we fail to see.” After years of living in trauma, she added, those children leave home “not the people who they have the right to be.”

And at that point, she said, “now, you’ve got an adult who we’re looking at trying to help recover.”

At 34, Schott has dark blond hair, a mustache and beard, and big aspirations. He speaks softly, sometimes mumbling, and talks often about how he’d like to one day go to law school to help other parents caught in the child welfare system. But he has also struggled to get up in the morning in time to get his daughters on the school bus, forgotten appointments and cycled through low-wage jobs and periods of unemployment.

Schott’s youth was not easy. By his senior year in high school, he dropped out and spiraled into depression and addiction. His father was arrested on multiple occasions, including for making methamphetamine, and spent time in federal prison. At 19, Schott was arrested for drunken driving, and he subsequently racked up some two dozen additional criminal charges and several misdemeanor convictions, most of them for marijuana possession. As a young adult, “I was just drinking myself to death,” he said.

He was at a bar when he met the woman who would become the mother of his children. Although numerous attempts to reach her for this article, including through family and friends, were unsuccessful, public records paint a little bit of a portrait of her. She left school in the 6th grade, though she later got her GED and took courses to become a dental technician, court records show. She told a probation officer she first used marijuana in elementary school, and she has used methamphetamine and opiates. She has been arrested on numerous occasions and has convictions for such offenses as burglary, armed robbery and possession of methamphetamine. She had three children before she met Schott; in the years since they got together, the pair have split up and reconciled several times, but they have not been a couple for several years.

When their first child arrived in 2013, Schott vowed to be a good father and stay out of trouble. “I ain’t never felt love like that before,” he said. But a year later, the baby and her half-siblings were placed in foster care following a DCFS investigation that began when one of the children, then 5, was spotted riding her bike unsupervised with a 3-year-old friend a half-mile from home, according to court records. The children were returned to their parents a few months later, Schott said, and his second daughter was born shortly after.

Children’s bikes are stacked in the yard of the home where Schott’s girls were living when they were removed in September 2021. Credit: Whitney Curtis for ProPublica

Over the next four years, DCFS investigated the family three more times for various allegations, including that the couple engaged in explosive fights in front of their daughters, provided inadequate supervision and used drugs, according to DCFS files that Schott obtained and shared with The Southern Illinoisan and ProPublica. (The files do not disclose who made the allegations to DCFS; the anonymity of people who make them is protected by Illinois law.)

DCFS did not substantiate those neglect claims. But that doesn’t mean the family wasn’t struggling. They were living in poverty with unstable housing and unreliable transportation.

In many ways, the child welfare system isn’t set up well to deal with families that cycle through investigations, often for neglect. Although neglect is frequently reported alongside physical or sexual abuse, 65% of substantiated repeat child maltreatment reports against families in Illinois involved neglect alone, according to a ProPublica analysis of case data from 2018 through mid-2020.

Share of repeated investigations where neglect was the sole allegation

Neglect covers a broad range of conditions, including children being left at home alone while both parents are working; food or housing insecurity; failure to take children to the doctor’s office; substance addiction; or exposing children indirectly to violence.

Often, when an allegation of neglect is called in, the agency starts an investigation. Over the past three fiscal years, DCFS investigated about 254,500 cases. In about 23,000 of those cases, the allegations included forms of neglect that Illinois law considers potentially tied to poverty: inadequate food, clothing or shelter or environmental neglect.

Neglect investigations specifically tied to poverty over three years

If DCFS doesn’t remove the children, agency officials typically offer help to families through its Intact Family Services program, which can include substance and mental health counseling, domestic violence prevention programs and parenting classes. But families are not required to avail themselves of those services unless ordered to by a court, and the vast majority of families participate in no services at all — whether because they decline to use them or because the services aren’t available.

Since 2013, about 70% of the tens of thousands of Illinois children identified by DCFS each year as victims of abuse or neglect went without DCFS services, according to data compiled by the University of Illinois’ Children and Family Research Center. That’s in part, child welfare experts said, because child protective services have little to offer when poverty drives so many of a family’s troubles.

“When children aren’t receiving what they need, and it’s a neglect concern related to a family’s lack of resources, is child protection really the right response? How is that a helpful response?” asked Melissa Staas, a supervisory attorney with the Children and Families Practice Group at Legal Aid Chicago. “A better response is to support the family in accessing the resources they need.”

Schott and his family encountered these shortcomings firsthand, entering into cycles of investigations without effective interventions. (DCFS declined to discuss the family’s situation in depth, citing privacy concerns, although Schott had provided a waiver allowing it to talk to reporters about the family; the agency confirmed some basic facts about their case history.)

In the fall of 2018, when the younger girls were living with their mother, the older of the two missed several days of kindergarten, prompting a visit by school officials. When no one came to the door, the educators called the sheriff’s office for help, according to a deputy’s report. The responding deputy wrote that the interior of the home, a trailer that sat atop a hill overlooking a sewage lagoon in rural Jackson County, was covered in so much debris he had trouble walking around.

The trailer had two bathtubs — one containing food scraps, the other piled high with dirty clothes. The stove appeared to be the only source of heat, while parts of the trailer floor had rotted out. Records show DCFS later found that the girls’ mother had failed to provide adequate food and shelter.

DCFS took the girls into protective custody, then placed them with Schott’s grandmother, Peggy Schott, for the first time.

Peggy Schott sits in her living room. Credit: Whitney Curtis for ProPublica

An Agency Mismatched

In Southern Illinois, the Schott story isn’t unique. A 2020 report found that in the Marion service area, which covers 27 rural counties in Southern Illinois, “performance has been consistently poor” around recurrence for at least seven years. Over a five-year period, from 2016 through 2020, about 19% of children identified by DCFS as victims of abuse or neglect were the subject of a confirmed maltreatment investigation again within a year, according to University of Illinois data, compared with about 13% statewide. These figures likely underestimate the scope of the problem, as they don’t capture families that, though their repeat investigations were ruled to be unsubstantiated, still face challenges in the home.

The lack of support for parents in the region is one reason. Mental health counseling and other services often have waitlists or require traveling long distances to appointments, said state Sen. Terri Bryant, a Murphysboro Republican, who sits on a legislative subcommittee focused on child welfare. “A lot of it is the absolute inability to get the people down here the services that they need,” she said.

Many regional social service providers that DCFS sends parents to for help “don’t have the doctoral-level therapists with the deep experience that some of these families desperately need,” said Joanna Wells, a clinical associate professor and director of the Southern Illinois University School of Law’s Juvenile Justice Clinic, which provides legal services to children in Jackson County.

One afternoon late last year, a woman appeared in court in Union County, which sits just south of Jackson County. Her children had been placed in foster care, and she’d been given a list of requirements she had to meet to get them back. Her lawyer told a judge the woman had completed all but one task: a class for parents whose children had been exposed to trauma. When asked why that task remained incomplete, the woman’s caseworker told the judge that the class was no longer offered. When it had been available, it was held 100 miles from where the mother lived.

“We need to have a service she can actually complete,” the judge said. Still, the judge declined to return the children to their mother, setting a next hearing for about five months later. The children, meantime, remained in foster care.

Peggy Schott’s house, where Alan Schott’s daughters were placed in foster care Credit: Whitney Curtis for ProPublica

Because of the depth of struggles many parents face, and the shortcomings of the system in the Southern Illinois region designed to address them, Wells said, “most cases do not close successfully.”

DCFS acknowledged families it deals with face greater challenges in some parts of the state, including Southern Illinois: Parents and caregivers in these underserved areas have fewer options for services, and often have to travel farther to take advantage of them. These regions tend to have higher rates of poverty, unemployment and drug use.

Smith, the DCFS director, tied those challenges directly to “aggressive” funding cuts to service programs, most recently during the Rauner administration. “Because those social services don’t exist in the community, an outcome of that is engagement with DCFS,” he said.

“We have to figure out, as a state, how do we get more resources in communities that are poor, that are rural, that are isolated and don’t have the support they need?” Smith said.

Multiple attempts to reach Rauner were unsuccessful.

Schott dealt with the fallout of those shortcomings. When DCFS took his girls from their mother’s home in 2018, he was in the middle of a three-week stint in jail connected to old charges for marijuana possession and DUI and couldn’t come up with $950 for bail. He figured he wouldn’t have any difficulty getting them back once he was released.

That wasn’t how it would go. With the girls placed in foster care after they were removed from their mother’s trailer, he became embroiled in court proceedings that would stretch on for 2 1/2 years as he worked to show he was fit to parent them. Though the process starts with DCFS, decisions about when to place children in foster care and when to return them are made by a judge.

Schott said that while his case wound its way through the legal system, he got little help from DCFS or Caritas Family Solutions, the private agency the state contracted with to manage the family’s case, in meeting the requirements imposed by the court for getting his daughters back. He was obligated to attend therapy, take parenting classes, submit to random drug tests and undergo a substance abuse assessment; the assessment from a drug treatment provider did not recommend further services, court records show. He was expected to find a job and a place to live; he had been living with his grandmother, but was no longer allowed to stay with her once the girls were placed in foster care there.

DCFS can provide families with up to $800 — or $2,400 with special permission from DCFS supervisors — in one-time emergency cash assistance to help with basic needs such as housing deposits, utilities and basic appliances when poverty conditions threaten to result in the removal of children or delay a family’s reunification. A 1991 consent decree that specifically addressed the issue of DCFS removing children into foster care because of poverty led to the creation of this cash assistance fund for families. That consent decree requires the agency to make reasonable efforts to remedy poverty-related conditions that are a factor in a parent retaining or regaining custody of their children.

Schott said DCFS never provided him or his children’s mother with cash assistance. “I asked them about helping her or helping me, either one, and they never helped us with anything,” he said.

DCFS confirmed that Schott qualified for the funding and never got it. The agency said Schott declined the help, telling his Caritas caseworker “he was employed and didn’t need any assistance.” Schott denied that he declined the help.

It is difficult to measure how many eligible families go without financial aid from the department, but data suggests that spending is not keeping up with need. From fiscal 2019 through 2021, DCFS closed investigations of roughly 19,400 families for poverty-related neglect. During that time, the department said it approved about 8,900 families for direct financial assistance. Families can qualify for funding even if neglect allegations against them are not substantiated. DCFS officials provided statistics showing that under Pritzker, the number of families in the Marion service area receiving financial aid has increased.

Schott’s aunt let him move into a vacant house she owns, about half a mile from where the girls were living with their great-grandmother on the outskirts of Murphysboro. But it needed renovations before DCFS would allow the girls to visit or move in, and he didn’t have a lot of time or money to make them.

He also didn’t own a reliable vehicle. He’d picked up work at a pasta manufacturing plant in Steeleville, 30 miles away from Murphysboro. To get there, he had to catch a van with other employees, which he said cost him about $60 a week. Getting to all of his appointments to fulfill the court’s orders required hitching rides and borrowing cars.

He also had to schedule his work shifts around in-person therapy and parenting classes, which met three times weekly in the early months of his case. He’d already taken the parenting class once before, when the children were previously in foster care, but he tried to make the best of it. “You can always learn things from what they’re trying to teach you,” he said.

But the drug test requirements made his schedule that much more hectic. At the beginning of his case, Schott said, the phone calls came about once a month, and they came without warning. When he was summoned, he’d have to find a way to leave work early and travel to Carbondale, about 40 miles away.

Schott completed the bulk of court-ordered obligations within about a year of his girls entering foster care. The court had set a goal of returning the Schott children to their parents within 12 months, so Schott figured he was close to getting them back.

But he wasn’t close. His daughters spent another 18 months — 30 months altogether — in foster care before he regained custody. This is not atypical. For the roughly 4,600 Illinois children exiting foster care in fiscal 2019, the latest year for which federal data is available, the median length of stay in the state’s custody was 31 months. That is far longer than any other state or district in the nation: Washington, D.C., was next at 21 months, and then Alaska at 20.

In March 2021, the judge in the Schott family’s case terminated the mother’s parental rights, ruling she had failed to make reasonable progress toward the completion of mandated services. The judge returned the girls to Schott, starting with a two-month trial period. Schott remembers being filled with pride.

“I cried because that judge has been on my ass ever since I was 19 and got that DUI and stuff. I mean, she’s really been on my ass,” Schott said. “I never expected to hear that woman say she was proud of me or want to shake my hand or none of that. And that’s what she did at that court date.”

A Hard Transition

For Schott and scores of other parents, regaining custody marks a critical point in the life of their case. It’s a moment that “requires additional support from the agency, not less,” said DCFS officials in a recent report about its efforts to curb its recurrence rates.

But in that same report, the agency acknowledged that it doesn’t always give that transition the attention it deserves. “Returning children to parents also requires a significant amount of preparation,” the report said, “and the data suggest that is not happening, with an observed high degree of need for the parents and children, and the maltreatment happening soon after reunification.”

Schott said the girls’ return to his home didn’t come with much help. His caseworker met with him a few times; Schott said the meetings mostly involved assessments of his home and didn’t delve into the more routine, day-to-day challenges of parenting he encountered.

Schott found the transition difficult. He had little experience fixing his daughters’ hair or picking out their clothes for school in the morning. Because he routinely stayed up late, he had a hard time waking up in time to get them ready for school.

Books and DVDs belonging to Schott’s daughters sit on a shelf in their bedroom at Schott’s ex-girlfriend’s home. Credit: Whitney Curtis for ProPublica

In late March 2021, just two weeks after the girls returned to Schott’s care, DCFS received a call that they were coming to school dirty. On the morning the report was made, the girls hadn’t shown up for school at all, and someone had gone to their home to wake everyone up, the agency was told. DCFS launched an investigation and learned of additional troubles.

The girls were frequently missing school, and when they did arrive, they were often late, the older girl without her glasses and backpack. Her schoolwork and behavior began slipping, it was reported to the agency. One of the girls told the investigator that the house had no hot water. Schott told DCFS that his hot water heater had broken and he was working to get a new one.

Asked about its response to the Schott’s family, Caritas directed all questions to DCFS. DCFS did not answer a question about what help was offered to the family during the transition, other than to say Caritas was providing unspecified services at the time of the investigation. Schott eventually obtained a water heater on his own, according to DCFS.

Schott’s Caritas caseworker told the investigator she visited the house regularly, and, while cluttered, it was not a safety risk for the children. She reported that the family was poor but said that she did not have other concerns. She said that, as for the father, he was getting a chance to raise his daughters. DCFS eventually determined that the allegation was “unfounded.”

Meanwhile, the court awarded Schott full custody in May and closed his case. In court records, his caseworker noted as strengths that he was willing to participate in recommended services to improve his parenting, that he had provided for a safe place for them to live together and that he “loves his children.”

Four months later — the day his daughter tried to show investigators that the electricity worked — DCFS removed the girls, sending them back to their great-grandmother Peggy’s. In a statement, DCFS said that the investigator made the decision to place the children into temporary protective custody because the investigator had been unable to observe the home or confirm that Schott was not using drugs. When Schott received the list of what he would have to do to get his children back, it was almost identical to the one he had just completed.

It’s the kind of situation that frustrates Jackson County State’s Attorney Joseph A. Cervantez, whose office petitions the court to place a child in foster care if it agrees with DCFS’s recommendation to do so. He said the system offers “the same thing over and over again. Whether there are good results or bad results, it continues to be the same.”

A Swing Toward Removals

In Illinois, as elsewhere, child welfare officials repeatedly turn to placing children in foster care to solve persistent problems in their homes. Removals peaked in fiscal 1997, when the state had more than 51,000 children in foster care. Those numbers fell dramatically over the following years and bottomed out in 2017, when the tally dropped to 14,000. Today, about 19,500 children live in foster care — the highest since 2002. Part of the issue is that calls to the agency’s hotline have shot up, leading to more investigations. But the foster care population has grown faster than the number of substantiated maltreatment investigations, suggesting that the response to maltreatment is swinging toward removing kids from their parents’ custody and placing them in foster care.

Unlike in the 1990s when Chicago and Cook County drove the state’s high foster care rates, prompting lawsuits against DCFS and reforms, increases over the past five years have been largely driven by less-populated regions across central and southern Illinois, and drawn far less attention.

Over the past few years, children from the Marion service area were placed into foster care at a rate four times higher than in Cook County relative to their share of the population. Across Illinois, 91% of children entered foster care for reasons of neglect rather than abuse in 2020, according to Child Trends, a national research organization that analyzes state child welfare data reported to the federal government.

The Illinois child welfare system, which includes DCFS, regional courts and social service providers, is struggling to manage the volume of new cases. A reporter’s observation of more than 10 hours of juvenile court in two Southern Illinois counties offered a glimpse into the upheaval. The reporter heard multiple stories that showed the system sagging under the strain of removals, including one child sleeping in a service provider’s office and another in a foster family’s bathroom due to a shortage of available foster care placements.

To DCFS’ Smith, the increasing removals are just one byproduct of rising DCFS engagement with families, and a “lagging indicator” of inadequate service options for families in need. Still, he stressed that the agency works hard to keep families together, petitioning courts to order kids removed from their homes into foster care only when there is an “urgent and immediate necessity.”

The burden of caring for children in the child welfare system frequently falls to relatives, who are often the first choice to serve as foster parents.

In Schott’s case, that role fell to Peggy Schott, an 87-year-old widow and Army veteran who had worked for three decades as a forklift driver. Her little white house is decorated with figurines outside, and framed pictures of family and Jesus Christ inside. It often smells of something she’s cooking. When the girls moved in with her, she placed a tiny table with two chairs for them in her kitchen.

But only weeks after they arrived, DCFS bounced them to another foster care home. The decision to place them with people who were not relatives caught the family by surprise.

On a Monday in early November, a Caritas caseworker called Peggy Schott to let her know the girls could no longer live with her. Schott had allowed her grandson to see his daughters without a Caritas worker present, as the agency required, according to a follow-up letter from DCFS explaining the move. Alan Schott had visited on a day when he and his grandmother had expected the caseworker to be there, and when she arrived the next day, Peggy Schott volunteered the information that her grandson had visited — evidence, she later said, that it had been an innocent mistake. She recalled the hour or so he spent with the girls as uneventful. The four of them had dinner together, and Alan Schott helped his daughters with their homework.

She could also point to positive reviews of her earlier care for the girls. Caseworkers had described her as a stable force in their lives. She made sure they went to school, were seen by doctors and attended therapy for emotional issues. Regardless, the caseworker told her someone would pick them up Friday to drive them to their new placement.

Peggy Schott had planned to keep the girls home from school that day and tell them what was going to happen. She hoped they could spend their final hours together doing something fun as a family. But while the girls were at school on Wednesday, a Caritas caseworker called and said she would pick them up at school. Someone would come by later to get their belongings.

Peggy Schott sits in the bedroom of one of her great-granddaughters. Credit: Whitney Curtis for ProPublica

“It just upsets me because they’re just hurting those girls more and more,” Peggy Schott said that day, upon learning of the change of plans. “They’ve been through so much. And I mean, right now, they’re so mixed up. I just can’t comprehend what this is doing to those girls.”

She called the school, pleading to talk to the girls, or for someone to pass along the message to them that this wasn’t her decision. After she’d placed multiple frantic calls, a school official connected her to her younger great-granddaughter. “Grandma loves you and I’m going to miss you,” she told her on the phone. “But they’re going to take you away from me.” “OK,” a tiny, quavering voice answered back, the only word the child could muster before hanging up the phone.

The burden of breaking the news to the older child fell to her teacher. When Peggy Schott reached her other great-granddaughter, the girl bellowed between sobs, “Where are we going?” She didn’t know what to tell the girl; she didn’t know herself.

“Remember to say your prayers every night, OK?” she said.

Five months later, the separation had taken an emotional and financial toll. Peggy Schott was worried about the girls, and about her grandson, who was becoming increasingly distraught.

As his daughters’ time in foster care dragged on, Alan Schott began to sense them growing distant. “I don’t know what to do about this situation,” he said after one visit with the girls.

“I don’t know why they’re keeping my kids from me,” he added. “I need my kids. I deserve my kids.”

Alan Schott had the right to challenge the state’s neglect case in court and was given a public defender to represent him. But when he and his grandmother concluded that the lawyer wasn’t giving the case the attention they felt it deserved, Peggy Schott took more than $5,000 from her savings to hire an attorney.

Delays by lawyers for both sides pushed the proceedings back to mid-February, well past a 90-day deadline to have the case heard — meaning more time the girls spent in foster care.

Alan Schott arrived at the courthouse in Jonesboro on the morning of the hearing wearing a Carhartt jacket and work boots. He was nervous. Two days earlier, he’d met with his lawyer, who told him the case would be difficult to win.

For about two hours, Alan Schott listened as a teacher, the principal and the lunchroom supervisor from his daughters’ school detailed their concerns. They said that while living with their father, the girls had been registered for school several weeks late, and often showed up wearing dirty or torn clothes and with their hair matted. The school employees testified that the girls seemed hungry, finishing their lunches and often asking for seconds. “I still think about her every day,” the older girl’s teacher testified. “Is she OK? How’s she doing?”

Alan Schott and his grandmother said they had taught the girls to eat everything on their plates and that the girls had been well-fed at home.

Alan Schott’s lawyer, Charles McGuire from the Southern Illinois Law Center, questioned why more hadn’t been done to help the family when school officials grew concerned. “He was never given the chance to raise these children,” the lawyer said.

Judge Amanda Byassee Gott later explained how she agonized over coming to a decision. The case, she said, “quite frankly is a very close call by this court.” She said she was “very concerned” for the girls’ well-being under their father’s care. But the state, she determined, had not proved that he had neglected them.

Later that day, a caseworker drove the girls to their great-grandmother’s house, where Alan Schott and his daughters would stay until they could find their own home.

At left, a balloon Alan Schott gave his children when they returned home floats on the ceiling of their bedroom. At right, Schott brushes his younger daughter’s hair. Credit: Whitney Curtis for ProPublica

DCFS was out of their lives again, with little to suggest that this most recent ordeal with the agency had delivered any stability. If anything, Alan Schott and his grandmother said, the experience felt more traumatic and disruptive than helpful. The girls were excited on the day they came home, but things got harder in the following weeks. The younger child, in particular, didn’t want to let her father out of her sight. The move back home also meant another school change, their fourth transfer in a year.

“It’s traumatizing to them, me, the rest of the family, and putting a burden on everybody,” Alan Schott said. “It’s crazy and they shouldn’t be allowed to do that.”

Alan Schott eats lunch with his younger daughter. Credit: Whitney Curtis for ProPublica

About the Data: How We Analyzed Child Welfare Investigations in Illinois

To understand why DCFS investigates the same families repeatedly, the Southern Illinoisan and ProPublica obtained a database of cases from the department through a public records request. Reporters identified a specific population of families within this database: those with at least two prior investigations, regardless of when those investigations took place. They then focused on substantiated cases of abuse or neglect involving these families from 2018 through mid-2020. The resulting subset of cases represented families who continued to struggle despite repeated interventions.

By measuring repeat investigations at the family level, the newsrooms took a different approach from that of DCFS in its public reporting. Like many state child welfare agencies, as well as the U.S. Children’s Bureau, DCFS uses “recurrence” to track repeated cases of abuse and neglect. Recurrence measures the percentage of children subjected to maltreatment who experience a second report of abuse or neglect within a set period of time, e.g., 6 or 12 months. Yet definitions of recurrence vary among government agencies and researchers, and none of them fully captures those families who, regardless of short-term recurrence, accumulate multiple investigations over a period of years. Neither DCFS’s annual report nor research published by the University of Illinois (which monitors the agency) measures longer-term involvement with the agency in this way.

The findings have a few important caveats. By focusing on families with multiple prior investigations without regard for when those investigations took place, the analysis included families whose cases may have occurred years apart and involved different children. By only looking at instances of substantiated maltreatment, the analysis did not include families who have been investigated multiple times without ever having an allegation substantiated. The analysis does not include investigations of licensed child care facilities, such as group foster homes, residential treatment centers or day care providers, as well as non-licensed institutional settings like jails. Changes in the department’s case-tracking procedure prevented the reporters from examining cases opened before 2018. Nonetheless, for each investigation opened in 2018 onwards, the database detailed the number of prior cases involving that family, even if those prior cases were before 2018. Cases opened after June 2020 were too recent to have outcomes in the database and so were excluded.

Finally, data on child welfare investigations is complex. Families who receive services are more likely to experience repeat investigations, which may be attributable to, among other factors, increased surveillance by caseworkers, University of Illinois researchers note. Further, bias and false reports can contribute to recurrence, and child welfare experts caution that repeated investigations involving the same parent don’t always signal a problem within the household. The data reflects the way the department interacts with its most persistently troubled families — not the frequency with which Illinois families commit repeated acts of abuse or neglect.

Help Us Investigate Child Welfare Services in Illinois

If you’ve recently been the subject of Illinois DCFS investigations, or had your children placed into foster care, we’re interested in talking to you about what was helpful that the system offered, and what wasn’t. Filling out our short questionnaire will help us do more reporting that matters to this community. We won’t be able to respond to everyone who reaches out, but we promise to read everything you submit. We take your privacy seriously. We are gathering these stories for the purposes of our reporting, and will contact you if we wish to publish any part of your story.

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Alex Mierjeski contributed research.