The troubling scene inside the dingy Chicago apartment seems real: dangling exposed wires, open pill bottles near a sleeping baby and a kitchen strewn with dog feces and cockroaches.
But the mock apartment — with a lifelike infant doll, candles emitting foul smells and plastic insects — is part of a new simulation lab to train workers who investigate child abuse claims across Illinois.
“Sometimes textbooks, they sugarcoat things. Teachers sugarcoat things, but this is real life,” said Beth Brown of Murphysboro, who recently trained at the so-called “dirty apartment.” ”This is what you’re going to experience.”
Illinois’ use of such experiential training focused on child welfare workers is being held up by experts as a national leader as the state plans to expand with a third simulation lab and its university experts write new research on the topic. But the accolades come as the agency faces serious systemic deficiencies, with some of its investigators under fire for high-profile deaths — including a 5-year-old suburban Chicago boy this year. The agency is under multiple court orders, including for high caseloads, leading the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and others to question the expansion.
“Training is a great thing, but all the training in the world isn’t going to fix the foundational problems that DCFS is struggling with,” said ACLU attorney Heidi Dalenberg, who was involved in the caseloads court order.
More than 700 front-line employees have undergone simulation training in Illinois with hundreds more expected to follow suit. Child investigators and experts call it invaluable preparation for a dangerous, high-burnout job at the heart of child protective work.
The use of simulation training isn’t unusual for first-responders: Many medical schools have opened multimillion-dollar facilities. However, it’s a newer concept in child welfare, said Victor Vieth, a longtime expert who has trained child protective workers nationwide. The first child welfare simulation labs emerged roughly 15 years ago at universities. Dozens have since added them, and it has spread to state agencies.
New Jersey has trained child welfare workers at a New Brunswick academy for about five years. Kansas started offering child protective employees simulation training in 2017. The University of South Carolina Upstate opened a training center in 2010 used by thousands of teachers, students and social service workers.
But Illinois is notable in targeting front-line workers through multiple centers and its university experts use the data for some of the first research on the topic. While some state-of-the-art facilities are pricey, Illinois has spent relatively little. The first lab opened in 2016 inside a home on the University of Illinois Springfield campus that was a gift. In Chicago, DCFS officials spent roughly $60,000 to convert existing office space into a lab that opened in April. A third is expected downstate within a year.
The state requires all new investigators, who follow hotline calls alleging abuse and neglect, undergo a week of simulation training. That was extended this year to veteran front-line workers, following an outside report on the agency’s systemic issues and high-profile deaths.
The labs use real cases, which Illinois officials say helps others avoid missteps. Early Springfield trainings were based on a child who died during a DCFS investigation.
“Once they go into a home, they have to use all of their senses,” said Monico Whittington-Eskridge, a DCFS deputy director in Chicago. “We are giving a picture of what are some of the typical things that they may encounter when they go into a home. Not every home is a potential dirty home.”
The Chicago lab includes another apartment with less obvious potential trouble: a cabinet of empty liquor bottles. There’s a courtroom to practice witness testimony and space set up as a doctor’s office or police station. All have cameras, two-way mirrors and microphones for observation.
The Associated Press recently observed the Chicago lab where more than 60 employees have trained, including walking through the “dirty apartment.” Investigators are taught to look for possible issues as they follow up on abuse claims, for instance asking about the open prescription pill bottles near the baby or checking if televisions are anchored down to protect young children. It all factors into the eventual determination of whether abuse or neglect claims are founded and whether the child will be removed from the home.
The state hires actors to portray family. Trainees are instructed to remain calm, plainly state facts and avoid accusations, in hopes of building trust to learn critical details.
Brown knocked on the door of the “dirty apartment” and encountered distraught, mistrusting parents.
“We don’t abuse our children at all. We take very good care of our kids,” said the actor playing the mother, who grew emotional. “You’re not coming to take our kids, are you?”
“That is not my intention,” Brown responded. “This may not even be an accurate report. My job is to see if it is accurate. I’m not here to accuse you of anything.”
Brown’s supervisor later entered to debrief, praising her calm demeanor and reminding her not to keep her back to the door, a safety precaution in the risky job.
Veteran investigator Stephen Mittens, who’ll soon undergo the training, has witnessed gunfire. Last year, an investigator died after being attacked while trying to take a child into custody.
“Oftentimes we’re walking into families’ homes into some of the worst situations,” Mittens said.
Investigators are also the first blamed when things go wrong, he said. That includes the death of Andrew “AJ” Freund, the 5-year-old who had extensive DCFS contact for abuse. His parents face murder charges. An investigator and supervisor were removed from casework. Attorneys said they were overloaded, a longtime problem and under court supervision at DCFS.
The agency’s other issues have been well-publicized and exacerbated by ongoing state budget problems, including inadequate care for juveniles with mental health problems, a hotline with slow response and over a dozen agency directors in the past decade. There’s also high turnover, typical of child welfare agencies. The Seattle foundation Casey Family Programs estimates average turnover rates from 20% to 40%.
First-year Gov. J.B. Pritzker has allocated funds for more investigators and agency officials have conducted a full review.
Some experts suggest the simulation training could help, particularly with burnout. Illinois researchers are studying data from the centers. UIS professor Betsy Goulet, who helped design the centers, said early signs suggest trainees are less likely to leave.
For Brown, 40, the simulations are refreshing after the classroom.
“It’s not something that a teacher can tell you what to do,” she said. “This is something you need to experience in order to get better and understand the job.”
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