DCFS in need of ‘transformative change’ Republican lawmakers say

Published: Mar. 17, 2022 at 4:30 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD (WGEM) - Republican lawmakers are once again calling for reform of the Department of Children and Family Services, but their cries are falling on deaf ears.

DCFS Director Marc Smith has been held in contempt of court seven times for keeping children in medical facilities longer than necessary. Of the six children kept in those facilities, one was kept in a psychiatric hospital for over 300 days. the most recent finding, which was made today, involves a 16-year old boy with special needs who was kept in a temporary shelter for more than 375 days.

“I understand why Gov. Pritzker feels heavily invested in Director Smith,” Rep. Deanne Mazzochi (R - Elmhurst) said. “But if six contempt of court orders is not enough of a wake-up call for Governor Pritzker that his approach isn’t working, what will be?”

The contempt of court findings come after a court order to place seven unrelated children was not followed. In each case, DCFS was ordered to place the children and did not.

“Holding a state agency director in contempt of court is extraordinarily rare,” Cook County Public Defender Charles Golbert said. “In the more than 30 years that I’ve been practicing in Juvenile Court, I cannot recall a single prior instance where a judge held the DCFS director in contempt. And now it’s happened six times in eight weeks. That’s how dysfunctional DCFS has become.”

Part of the issue lies in the lack of available beds for DCFS children. Five hundred beds were eliminated seven years ago and have not been meaningfully replaced since. Smith said in an earlier hearing in the General Assembly that they attempt to replace the beds, but more beds close in the meantime, resulting in no net gain.

A spokesperson for the Pritzker administration said the budget impasse from previous Governor Bruce Rauner caused the current administration to inherit a “hollowed out and underfunded” department. They also fired back at Republicans, saying they have not historically voted for budgets to increase funding for DCFS.

“It should come as no surprise that members of the GOP are once again using our state’s most vulnerable as pawns in their political games,” Pritzker Press Secretary Jordan Abudayyeh said. “As the administration has repeatedly made clear, these reckless decisions destroyed lives quickly, but it will take years to undo that damage.”

Beyond that, the agency also tragedies in recent years involving the deaths of children in the system, such as AJ Freund, who was found in a shallow grave a mile from Rep. Steven Reick’s (R - Woodstock) home, he says. Additionally, two DCFS workers were killed while investigating cases: Diedre Silas in Thayer, Illinois earlier this year and Pam Knight in Carroll County.

Republican reps. Tom Weber (Lake Villa), Mazzochi, David Welter (Morris) and Reick called for “transformative” change this morning in the department, calling on Gov. JB Pritzker and his administration to try and reform the issues in the department.

Mazzochi said the governor made a campaign pledge to improve the agency during his campaign but claims he didn’t follow through on that promise, and that the contempt orders are proof.

“It is unheard of that things sink so low that we have to get to this point,” she said.

Beyond the deaths and mishandling of children in care, they also argue there’s a fundamental issue with the agency. Reick argued that families will often be taken apart multiple times as a family navigates an issue. That combined with overworked staff and fewer resources mean children miss out on key developmental periods.

“We have kids bouncing out of houses, back into homes, out of homes, back into homes, until they fall out of the system completely or die,” Reick said.

In the past fiscal year, there were 41,970 children in DCFS care who were abused or neglected. Of those children, 13,900 were indicated as having been abused again.

The representatives said they have proposed bills to try and reform the agency, but that their bills haven’t been called or given a hearing. Reick said he has had bipartisan and bicameral discussions in the General Assembly about DCFS, even coming to agreements that the system needs reform. Welter said the majority party is failing to call their bills and stonewalling their efforts.

“The problem is one of the governor’s failure to do something,” Reick said. “It’s not for us, who have been stymied and stonewalled every time we turn around, to try and do something about this.”

On the administrative side, a statement from Pritzker’s administration said there has been a $340 million increase in the department’s budget and made efforts to hire more staff. His administration said those efforts passed the General Assembly without Republican support.

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