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Illinois lawmakers hope to address systemic DCFS problems during 2022 session

Illinois DCFS Director Marc Smith talks to the Gray TV Illinois Capitol Bureau during a...
Illinois DCFS Director Marc Smith talks to the Gray TV Illinois Capitol Bureau during a sit-down interview last summer.(Mike Miletich)
Published: Jan. 13, 2022 at 5:45 PM CST
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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WGEM) - The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is frequently under the spotlight for reports of child neglect and mismanagement. Now, the agency’s director is being held in contempt of court for violating the rights of three children in care.

Over the past year, 350 youths in care have been left in psychiatric hospitals an average of 55 days because the agency didn’t have placement for them. Each of the contempt charges against Director Marc Smith is costing Illinois taxpayers $1,000 per day.

DCFS investigator Deidre Silas was also stabbed to death during a house visit last week. Silas was the second DCFS investigator killed on the job in recent years. Caseworker Pam Knight was murdered by a child’s father on Sept. 29, 2017.

Illinois lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say the department must be held accountable. Rep. Steve Reick, who serves on a DCFS working group, said Thursday that no amount of money can solve the systemic failures within the agency.

“I mean they get a billion dollars a year,” Reick said. “I think that DCFS should be a case intake and case management agency and let investigations and things like that be handled more at the local level.”

Reick says lawmakers need to stop treating children “as chattel property of their parents or the state.” He argues everyone must treat them as citizens with rights.

Several lawmakers are demanding legislative leaders hold public hearings with Smith and other top DCFS officials to find solutions to the problems. Rep. Tony McCombie (R-Savanna) stressed Illinois lawmakers are tasked with protecting the state’s most vulnerable residents.

“Democrats, you need to step up and you need to schedule these hearings now,” McCombie said. “And Gov. Pritzker, wake up and break your silence. This is not a partisan issue. Don’t make it one.”

Some say Smith should be fired after nearly three years leading DCFS. House Child Welfare Committee Chair Kathleen Willis agrees the buck should stop with the director, but she says Smith is the only stability in the rocky department right now.

“If Director Smith can’t go and step up to do the reforms, maybe it is time to find somebody new,” Willis said. “But I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon right away. I think we need to look at what is the best way to put reform in place so that we can have better results.”

Willis noted she is interested in holding a public hearing for Smith to testify before lawmakers as she did in October. However, Willis said members should be more focused on passing proposals mandating transparency in the agency. The Addison Democrat also said Illinois should start passing proactive policies instead of reactive plans when something goes wrong.

Pritzker announced his support last week for a proposal to increase penalties for anyone who commits crimes against DCFS employees. The bipartisan bill could lead to Class 1 felonies for individuals who cause great bodily harm, permanent disability, or disfigurement to a DCFS employee. This would give DCFS workers the same protections as police, firemen, and other first responders in honor of Deidre Silas and Pam Knight.

“Our DCFS workers dedicate their careers to our most vulnerable children, living in pursuit of the belief that every child should have a safe place to call home,” Pritzker said. “These professionals do everything in their power to protect children, so it’s time for the legal system to treat them like the first responders they are.”

People assaulting DCFS employees are only charged with aggravated battery at this time. Many believe the attackers should receive more than a Class 3 felony.

“DCFS and Gov. Pritzker have failed DCFS workers and the children who need the state’s help,” said Rep. Tom Weber (R-Lake Villa). “The children in these horrific situations are the most defenseless people in Illinois. They are being left to suffer by the Pritzker administration.”

Willis also stressed that lawmakers need to look into the underlying problems that lead to children ending up in the child welfare system. Many lawmakers have previously introduced plans to strengthen family first prevention services. Willis says DCFS needs to have a better framework to understand what families are struggling with, whether it is food insecurity, unemployment, or substance abuse. She notes that some adults with children may need help with mental health or parenting classes.

“All of those things are factors in childcare. We need to make sure that families are getting the wrap-around support they need,” Willis said. “These services need to play in more than they are right now. We say we have them on the books, but I don’t think they’re being utilized enough. Parents are being put on waiting lists and we don’t move forward until it becomes crisis level.”

As of Thursday night, the House Adoption and Child Welfare Committee had no hearings scheduled for next week.

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