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Caseworkers altered files after deaths of children
November 20, 2006 permalink
An American newspaper discovers that in cases of child death, child protectors alter their records to cover their mistakes.
Caseworkers altered files after deaths of children
FAIRMONT CITY - While an arson investigator sifted through a fire-gutted trailer where a baby boy died, records show that state child protection workers met to alter the family's case file to erase concerns about the home's safety.
Two administrators, a supervisor and a caseworker for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services met in the East St. Louis office on Dec. 27, 2005 -- the same day 7-month-old Edgardo Martin died.
They focused on the caseworker's notes questioning the safety of hooking up three space heaters at the Martin family's mobile home to a single series of extension cords. Cord overload caused the blaze, a state fire marshal said.
The caseworker never warned the Martin family of the potential dangers and accepted a Spanish translator's assurance that everything was OK, according to a 2006 child death report compiled by the Office of the Inspector General for the DCFS.
During the meeting on the day of the fire, the caseworker's concern about the heaters "was minimized or stricken altogether," according to the investigative report.
A supervisor told an inspector general's office investigator they rewrote the caseworker's notes because they were not "sufficiently descriptive."
The actions of the DCFS workers violated an agency regulation that prohibits rewriting case records.
A News-Democrat investigation into children who died while under the watch of the DCFS found at least three examples where state workers altered records in an apparent attempt to cover up mistakes or minimize department blame.
Kendall Marlowe, deputy chief of communications for the DCFS in Springfield, said the department's top administrators had no comment.
In one case, investigators found a DCFS worker applying white-out to a case file.
Each time, the changes were not listed on a Statement of File Integrity, which requires that any changes to original reports or notes be documented in writing and signed by a supervisor.
Denise Kane, the inspector general for the DCFS, said workers can add to a case file, but they cannot make changes or remove anything from it.
"They can't change a record," said Kane, whose office conducts investigations of child protection worker conduct in cases of death and serious injury.
"We asked for discipline in these (three) cases because whatever the motivations of why they did it, that makes no difference. They can't do it," Kane said.
The Martin family came to the attention of the DCFS after it received concerns about a lack of heat in their home.
Juan Jose Martin, the boy's father, said no one warned him about the potential danger of the space heaters.
"They are the government, and they're supposed to be able to inspect and make sure that it's safe," Martin said in an interview through a reporter who speaks Spanish.
"If they would have told us it was bad, we would have gotten rid of them," he said.
In another case, the East St. Louis office of the DCFS lagged in sending case records to the inspector general's office after the death of Vanessa Ingram, a baby born in a toilet in Venice.
When they finally received the files, child death investigators found that 14 months of caseworker notes and other documents were missing. They also reported that a notation allegedly made in February about whether a caseworker knew the infant's mother was pregnant actually was created on May 2 -- four days after the baby died.
In the Chicago suburb of Glendale Heights, two investigators from the inspector general's office went to a local DCFS office in 2002 to seize records in the case of 14-year-old Christopher Bahena, who died when his father shot his children.
The Bahena family was the subject of 32 child abuse hot line calls and 25 investigations over 11 years. Even though the agency issued eight findings against the parents that abuse had occurred, DCFS workers allowed the children to remain in the home.
Special investigators moved in to take control of all files pertaining to Christopher's death.
Office staff told the two state investigators to wait in the lobby. They waited 30 minutes before a public service administrator arrived. She told them to wait some more.
The investigators finally announced they were there to immediately seize department records and walked toward the inner office door.
The administrator tried to block them, but the investigators pushed past her to where the case files were kept. They found a caseworker "applying white-out to a document," according to the investigator's report.
Later that day, a supervisor called an administrator and said, "We screwed up," the report stated.
The incident prompted a special investigation by Kane, the inspector general, and her office into file tampering. It was supposed to put DCFS workers throughout the state on notice, but didn't prevent allegations of tampering later in the Martin and Ingram cases.
Records reviewed by the newspaper did not show any discipline of any worker or supervisor for tampering with records in any of the three cases.
Presently, state employees must enter all case records into a state database that can freeze the records after a child dies.
"I think it's a deterrent," Kane said.
But that didn't stop one DCFS worker in Chicago from altering computer files in a nondeath case. The Cook County Central Child Protection office fired Cecilia Namayanja in September 2005 after she created new case notes in a state computer, records showed.
A notice of discharge filed with the Civil Service Commission said that "previous case notes that you entered into the system disappeared."
Will freezing computer files prevent further tampering? Kane said she didn't know.
"Do I think that means that everybody is going to be the best that they can be? I can't speculate on that," she said. "It has happened three times. It may happen again."
Contact reporters George Pawlaczyk at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2625 and Beth Hundsdorfer at email@example.com or 239-2570.
Source: Belleville News-Democrat