DCFS stands before House committee on child placement, worker safety issues

Hearing follows contempt of court finding for Director Marc Smith, stabbing death of DCFS worker
DCFS went in front of House members today after several children were found to be left in...
DCFS went in front of House members today after several children were found to be left in psychiatric hospitals for multiple months.(WGEM)
Published: Jan. 28, 2022 at 5:07 PM CST
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SPRINGFIELD (WGEM) - Department of Children and Family Services Director Marc Smith went before House legislators Friday to answer for recent issues with housing children and the safety of DCFS workers.

After being found in contempt of court three separate times in quick succession, as well as the January death of a DCFS worker, the department came before a House committee to explain.

Though called in reaction to several scandals from the department, legislators were adamant to make sure it wasn’t a public shaming of the department. Since it was a hearing, no specific actions towards change were taken at this meeting.

“We are not here to point fingers,” Committee Chairwoman and Rep. Camille Lilly (D - Oak Park) said. “We’re here to learn what we need to be done to ensure the safety of our children under the DCFS department as well as its workers.”

“The problems within the department are not the fault of one director, one administration, or one general assembly,” she continued.

Children left in medical facilities

When in DCFS care, children will be placed into psychiatric facilities if they require therapy or other forms of help beyond what parents or foster parents can provide.

Once their psychiatric treatment is completed, children can be left in the facility because DCFS has no space to put them. Director Marc Smith said anywhere from 45 to 55 children will be in facilities longer than medically necessary. Six of them, he said, have been in psychiatric hospitals for six months or more.

The issue of children being left in psychiatric facilities recently came to light when Smith was found in contempt of court for three unrelated cases of children not being placed. Written testimony from Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert said those three in DCFS care spent four to seventh months in the psychiatric ward despite not needing care.

“All of the children spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years in the psychiatric hospital or “temporary” shelter; one of the children also spent the 4th of July holiday and her ninth birthday there,” Golbert’s testimony states.

All three child have since been placed. Smith would have faced contempt of court as well as the department getting a $1,000 fine per day the children remained in the facility.

Rep. Kathleen Willis (D - Addison) said she filed legislation to start an oversight committee for the department, so this doesn’t happen again.

“We want to work with you on this,” Willis said. “I want to see us work together as partners and not make it a finger pointing thing because we need to get to what out ultimate goal is: to help the children in the state of Illinois.”

Investigator safety

Earlier this month, DCFS investigator Deidre Silas was stabbed to death while investigating a home in Thayer, Illinois. In 2017, DCFS caseworker Pam Knight was beaten to death while attempting to remove a child from a home in Dixon, Illinois.

“The tragedies of Pam and Deidre has really impacted us deeply and continues to impact us deeply,” Smith said.

DCFS workers investigate or remove children from unsafe living situations. Smith said that in a known unsafe situation, DCFS may contact law enforcement to support the worker as they visit the home. However, they said there are not any self-defense measures that works have available if law enforcement does not accompany them.

Almost all DCFS offices have armed security guards, Smith said, but these guards do not accompany workers on their investigations.

“Their role is to provide protection and support in the offices,” Smith said. “We work with our law enforcement partners to go out to homes.”

“We also have a capacity to go out with fellow staff members in pairs if its deemed appropriate,” he continued.

DCFS workers have panic alert systems on their phones. Smith said the department is looking into other alert systems to see if they would work for DCFS.

Available beds

Part of the reason DCFS faces issues in placing children once they have finished psychiatric treatment is due to a lack of bed availability.

According to Golbert’s testimony, DCFS eliminated 500 beds for “children in DCFS care with serious and on-going mental health needs,” from 2013 to 2018.

Smith said since he began his position as director in 2019, he has worked to increase bed availability. So far, he said they’ve added 88 beds. they plan to add 100 in the next year. Smith said the process to replace lost beds is “lengthy” and more challenging due to the pandemic.

“Since these drastic cuts, the number of new beds created each year continues to be outnumbered by the additional beds lost,” Golbert’s testimony reads.

Smith said one of the ways they avoid having children need shelter or residential beds is by reaching out to family to see if they can take care of a child.

Additionally, the amount of youth in DCFS care has increased from around 16,000 to over 20,000 children.

Increasing staff

As more youth enter DCFS care, that means the caseload increases as well. Smith said that the caseload differs across the state. Some places are at expected levels, some have higher caseloads.

“Hiring has always been a challenge for DCFS,” Willis said.

There isn’t a clear target number yet for how many workers DCFS is looking to take on. smith said it changes as the case load changes. Right now, however, they are “aggressively” looking to hire.

“There is no one solution to attracting and keeping employees who work in our business,” Smith said.

Wages for a DCFS worker are low, around $8 to $9 an hour, Smith said. One of the steps to increase staffing levels would be to increase pay for workers. He said the department is working with partners like universities and other sources to recruit staff.

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