By BETH HUNDSDORFER
Capitol News Illinois
A Cook County judge found DCFS Director Marc Smith in contempt on Thursday, April 21.
It’s the ninth time this year that Smith has faced contempt citations for failing to place children in settings that comply with the agency’s recommendations and court orders.
The latest case involves a 15-year-old boy with special needs who remains in a locked psychiatric unit despite a medical release on Jan. 31. The court ordered on March 14 that DCFS move the child to an appropriate placement by March 25. DCFS had not moved the child as of Friday.
Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert represents the boy in court and stated DCFS failed for months to schedule a neuropsychological exam to assess the boy’s special needs.
Gov. JB Pritzker’s spokesperson, Jordan Abudayyeh, said Pritzker and Smith share the judge’s frustration with lack of appropriate placements.
“DCFS is working hard to find placements for these vulnerable children with special needs. Tragically, when Gov. Rauner decimated social services, we were warned that it would be much easier to lose the 500 beds he destroyed than to recreate them again. Advocates warned that these services weren’t like a light switch that could be turned on and off with ease,” Abudayyeh said.
Golbert said the hope is the contempt citations will drive change within the agency, including removing children from inappropriate and harmful settings. Golbert said there are empty beds at existing group homes and residential facilities, but they are not appropriately staffed.
In the long term, Golbert said, DCFS needs to expand placement across the board, but especially in specialized foster care.
Gov. Pritzker’s budget set aside $250 million to hire additional staff, increase rates for DCFS’ private partners and create new residential capacity, Abudayyeh said.
“Since taking office, the governor increased DCFS’ budget by over $340 million with DCFS launching aggressive hiring efforts to bring on hundreds of additional staff,” she said. “The administration inherited a DCFS with outdated technology and inadequate trainings. Since then, technology has been overhauled and trainings and retrainings have taken place for every DCFS staff member.”
The contempt citations, child deaths and death of a DCFS investigator have drawn scrutiny from the legislature and the public.
Pritzker has been asked on multiple occasions about his confidence in Smith’s leadership at DCFS, most recently on April 9.
“Let me remind you that there have been over a dozen leaders of DCFS over the prior years to my becoming governor,” he said. “It’s important for us to bring stability to DCFS with a good leader who is bringing change. It is hard to make changes in a bureaucracy when you walk in day one. It takes some time and especially after you had two years of no budget, and essentially defunding of DCFS over an awful lot of years.”
Pritzker pointed to the budget numbers cited by Abudayyeh.
“Are there still challenges? Absolutely,” he said. “Every circumstance of a death or neglect or abuse is a tragedy, … so we’re trying to address those … but you can’t do it by just saying every time there’s a problem, let’s toss out the director.”
Since December, at least five children have died after contact with the state’s child protection agency. They are Damari Perry, 6, of North Chicago; Sophia Faye Davis, 1, of Dawson; Zaraz Walker, 1, of Bloomington; and Tamsin Miracle Sauer, 3, of Nelson.
Caseworker Deidre Silas was murdered in January while on a child welfare check in Sangamon County.
And the contempt citations keep stacking up.
The first contempt order involved a girl locked up in a psychiatric hospital unnecessarily for more than seven months, starting when she was eight years old. The second order involved a 13-year-old boy whom DCFS kept in a “temporary” shelter in Mount Vernon for nearly five months. The shelter is nearly five hours away from the child’s home. Before being placed in the shelter, the boy slept in a utility closet at a DCFS office.
In the third contempt order, a 17-year-old boy was placed in a locked psychiatric hospital for more than four months after he was cleared for release. The fourth contempt order involved a 16-year-old girl shuffled back and forth by DCFS 25 times in two months among various placements including hospitals, emergency shelters, a shelter in Indiana, and temporary foster homes. Before that, she was in a locked psychiatric hospital for nearly two months after she was medically cleared for release.
The fifth case involved an 11-year-old girl who was ready for discharge from a locked psychiatric hospital for almost a year. The sixth contempt order involved a 15-year-old girl held in a locked psychiatric for approximately three months. DCFS determined that she needs a specialized foster home.
The seventh order involved a 16-year-old boy with low intellectual functioning and cognitive delays who spent more than a year in a temporary shelter. The eighth case involved a 14-year-old girl who had been placed in 21 settings, including DCFS offices, hospital emergency rooms, and emergency foster homes. The placements also include being in a locked psychiatric hospital after she was ready for discharge for more than two months after entering DCFS’s care.
In each of the cases, Smith was fined $1,000 per day until the children were in proper placements.
The first two contempt citations were purged after DCFS removed the children involved from a psychiatric hospital and an emergency center in Mount Vernon and placed them appropriately. All of the other children remain in inappropriate settings and the contempt of court adjudications remain in full force and effect. The fines all remain stayed.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government that is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.