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I was raised on a rural route at the edge of the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois. I didn’t know a single rich person growing up; we were all varying degrees of middle-class and poor. Still, I knew at a young age that some of the kids at my school went without some of the most basic necessities, let alone such extras as a new outfit from Walmart to start the school year. But it would be years before I fully realized the harshness of rural poverty — in particular, the ways isolation exacerbates financial challenges, as well as the lack of medical and social service providers and long distances necessary to travel to find them, often without any form of reliable public transportation. When poverty persists in a region, other problems take root.
After spending several years reporting in other states, in 2014 I returned to the region I had long called home. Since then, I’ve heard about how child abuse rates are higher in rural Southern Illinois than any other part of the state. And I wondered why these trends persist.
A year ago, ProPublica’s Vernal Coleman and Haru Coryne and I began looking for answers, which led to the story we published on Friday. Two findings, in particular, stood out to me: how often the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services’ staff returned to the same homes and how most of these families are investigated repeatedly not for abuse but for neglect, accused of failing to provide adequate food, shelter or supervision, or of exposing their children to dangerous situations, among other things. Our analysis found that both of these problems exist statewide. But the trends were most troublesome in Southern Illinois.
This may seem intuitive, given the region’s poverty. Many people living with low incomes provide adequately for their children despite their financial struggles, but poverty is widely considered a risk factor for neglect because of the added stressors it places upon a family. “In more situations than not, if you dig deep enough behind what is causing the neglect reports, poverty is a problem,” said Jerry Milner, a longtime child welfare official who led the Children’s Bureau under the Trump administration. “It goes unchecked, and then other things start happening in the lives of kids and families that may lead to something more serious.”
There’s a fresh conversation taking place in national child welfare circles about whether there’s a better way to help families facing repeated neglect allegations. Advocates for reform say direct financial aid and a robust array of community-based social services would benefit most far more than investigations that seek to determine fault, which can result in child removals to foster care. But politicians at the federal level have resisted investing in the kinds of changes the child welfare system needs, Milner said.
That is, in part, because “abuse and neglect” are so often mentioned in the same breath, making it easy to lose sight of the fact that they are not the same thing. “We’ve done a disservice in America by conflating the two,” said Jess McDonald, who headed DCFS during a tumultuous time in the 1990s, when Illinois’ foster care numbers reached an all-time high. As a result, “it makes you less sympathetic to these families cycling through neglect investigations.”
DCFS and child welfare agencies across the nation were primarily established to police abuse, and the tools they have at their disposal favor investigations and removals of children into foster care over family stabilization. Illinois, like other states, does have a program to keep families together, offering support services to parents when it deems it safe for the kids to remain in the home. But as even DCFS acknowledged to us, in Southern Illinois, those resources are fewer and farther between than in other parts of the state.
In a statement to The Southern and ProPublica, DCFS said that Illinois’ funding challenges, particularly during the administration of former Gov. Bruce Rauner, have resulted in fewer social service providers in the areas where they’re most needed. “I think it’s important for us to talk about the lack of resources in communities and the negative outcomes when you don’t have those resources,” DCFS director Marc Smith said in an interview. (Multiple attempts to reach Rauner for comment were not successful.)
What we found traveling across Southern Illinois over the past year, talking with families and the experts who work inside the system, is that parents who are repeatedly investigated for neglect often live in poverty, and many are struggling to provide for their children while dealing with weighty stressors on their lives, including addiction, depression or domestic violence. For too many, these cycles are generational.
One afternoon last fall, I sat in the kitchen with a Carterville mother as she prepared pizza rolls for her two children. She told me about how she’d fallen into a deep depression and turned to meth after her older child died in a car accident. She said she had been married as a young teenager and is a survivor of domestic violence. Despite DCFS’s repeated involvement in her life, she told me, she had yet to connect to the therapeutic help she needed. I met another mother from Dongola whose children were taken after a DCFS investigator found her home severely damaged by a leaky roof. The mother had made pleas to family and friends for help with fixing it dating back two years on her Facebook page.
Having given birth to twins last year, I am awash with a fresh wave of empathy for struggling, tired, overwhelmed parents. I love my children dearly, but when you’re sleep deprived and inexperienced, some days are long and hard — especially when my children are sick and the crying feels ceaseless, or when I’m stressed about bills and work obligations I can’t always meet. I don’t know how I would manage without a husband, a village of family and friends, a supportive workplace and enough money to hire babysitters on occasion so I have room to breathe.
So many of the parents I interviewed for this story have none of these luxuries.
Though we talked with many people, we centered our story on Alan Schott and his two daughters. Schott and the girls’ mother had been investigated at least 10 times. DCFS only ever substantiated claims of neglect against the family, and the girls were removed three times — and returned home three times as well. They are living with their father and great-grandmother today.
We chose to focus our story on the Schott family for a particular reason. News stories about child welfare tend to stake out one of two positions: They take agencies like DCFS to task for missing numerous and seemingly obvious red flags leading to a child’s death; or they draw attention to cases where children have been unnecessarily removed. Both of those situations are unfortunate, and deserving of attention.
But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking: What does DCFS do about cases where departmental and parental shortcomings collide in a gray area? These types of cases, though exceedingly typical, don’t receive the public policy attention they deserve.
There often aren’t any easy answers. But without adequate resources, DCFS is left with two bad options: either allowing chronic problems inside a home to fester to the point of crisis; or taking children from their families. Both options tear at the fabric of our communities. As the number of children in foster care across Southern Illinois has reached levels unseen for at least three decades, there’s urgency to ask these questions.