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This is a three-part series originally broadcast on WGLT's newsmagazine Sound Ideas in September 2022. The solutions-based reporting is aimed at rethinking how Illinois' child welfare system could work.

DCFS pledges to do better as lawmakers remain mostly silent

Darren Bailey, left, and JB Pritzker
Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere (Chicago Sun-Times) Rex Arbogast (AP)
Chicago Sun-Times, AP
State Sen. Darren Bailey, left, and Gov. JB Pritzker.

When DCFS Director Marc Smith faced Illinois lawmakers in August, he assured them the state’s child welfare agency was “one of the best child welfare systems in the country.”

Republican lawmaker Chapin Rose disagreed, calling Smith’s assessment “delusional.”

So far this year, Smith has been found in contempt of court 12 times by a Cook County judge for failing to properly place youth in state care.

As the November election nears, lawmakers who have openly challenged how the Department of Children and Family services operates have grown quieter about the agency. Republicans and Democrats contacted by WGLT declined to comment about existing challenges. A similar lack of response came from the governor’s office and Republican gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey.

Elected officials have an obligation to see that DCFS follows through with reforms that could address longstanding issues, said McLean County State's Attorney Erika Reynolds, whose courtroom experience includes child death cases.

Erika Reynolds
Eric Stock
Erika Reynolds

“As long as kids are getting hurt while there is ongoing DCFS involvement, DCFS should continue reform efforts. Lawmakers have an oversight responsibility in that endeavor," said Reynolds.

In May, an Illinois state auditor found DCFS was unable to provide 98% of the required Home Safety Checklists requested as part of the state review. The agency also failed to update new language for the checklists.

The checklists were part of “Ta’Naja’s Law,” named for a 2-year-old who died in 2019, six months after she was returned to her mother. Ta’Naja Barnes’ mother was convicted of murder.

The new law required DCFS to complete home safety checks after a child is returned to their parents and follow-up care to the minor and their family for at least months after they return home. In a round of bipartisan criticism of Smith, Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, sponsor of Ta’Naja’s Law, said she was not surprised by DCFS' failure.

“This is what we feared all along was happening, this audit just confirms it,” Scherer said in a May statement.

Technology and record-keeping issues also continued to plague DCFS, according to the report from the Office of the Auditor General. Data entry errors for records of well-child visits were noted in the 50 cases reviewed by the state. Problems with computer records for child immunizations halted the audit until DCFS supplied paper documents.

DCFS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said a recently adopted Comprehensive Child Welfare Information System “will comply with federal guidelines and will replace systems with an integrated solution.”

Since the adoption of the managed care system, called YouthCare, in 2020, “all medical records are maintained and easily accessible by DCFS staff,” said McCaffrey.

A total of 20,652 children are under DCFS supervision, according to state data released in July. Of those, 11,178 resided with relatives and 8,374 were in foster care. Group homes and specialized facilities housed the remaining children.

A shortage of staff to manage the caseloads has improved, according to DCFS. With 2,978 employees, the agency has “one of our highest headcounts in more than a decade,” according to McCaffrey, while it works to fill 438 vacancies.

Still vacant is the domestic violence coordinator for the Cook County DCFS office. The position has been filled in the state’s other regions as part of a recommendation by the Office of Inspector General.

The recent updates to technology and increased hiring follows years of funding cuts, said McCaffrey.

“Previous administrations and general assemblies hollowed out DCFS,” said the DCFS spokesman. He said hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding approved under the Pritzker administration have allowed DCFS to address “some of the longstanding challenges facing the department after years of neglect.”

A portion of the new funding has been used to add 140 beds for children with complex medical and behavioral needs, said McCaffrey.

Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.
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