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ISU Expert Sees 'Opportunity For Change' At State's Child Welfare Agency

Doris Houston
Ryan Denham
Doris Houston is director of ISU’s Center for Child Welfare and Adoption Studies and a former DCFS child welfare administrator.";

A child welfare expert at Illinois State University said she’s encouraged by the latest attempts to better fund and reform the state’s troubled Department of Children and Family Services.

DCFS has been under intense public scrutiny this year following the high-profile deaths of several children in its orbit, including an 8-year-old girl from Normal.

Several recent reports have identified systemic problems within DCFS, including its Intact Family Services unit.

“It’s certainly an opportunity for change and to move forward, to try some new ideas and really engage the new leadership that has stepped forward,” said Doris Houston, director of ISU’s Center for Child Welfare and Adoption Studies and a former DCFS child welfare administrator.

Gov. JB Pritzker said in May that DCFS will review 1,100 open cases involving young children. It also created a Crisis Intervention Team to immediately investigate the deaths of children under DCFS’ care.

One challenge is a lack of consistent leadership. Current Acting Director Marc Smith is the agency’s 15th leader since 2003. But Houston praised the governor’s office’s “methodical” approach to the problems.

“The governor does not have a lot of time, because these are really, really pressing issues that the state is facing,” Houston said on WGLT’s Sound Ideas.

One encouraging move, she said, was a $130 million budget increase for DCFS for the fiscal year that began July 1. That’s an 11% increase.

The new state budget “makes a huge difference” not just for DCFS, she said. The budget stalemates under the Rauner administration also starved many of the nonprofit agencies that help keep kids out of DCFS care and support them if it happens anyway.

“The increases are absolutely essential to get (DCFS) back on its footing in terms of hiring, resources, and even things we don’t think of, like data management,” Houston said.

Houston said she was also pleased to see lawmakers pass SB 191, which raises the age cap that DCFS must stop providing services for a young person, from 19 to 21. It was recently signed into law.

Vulnerable youths who are “emancipated” (become independent) too early can end up on a bad path, Houston said, with high rates of homelessness, joblessness, food insecurity, and other problems.

“When you think of most young people who are 18 or 19, especially if they’ve not had family stability, how many are really capable of making decisions that could affect their entire life?” she said.

Listen to Houston’s interview with WGLT:

You can also listen to the full interview:

WGLT's interview with Houston.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the bill number of legislation raising the age cap for those receiving DCFS services. It's SB 191, not SB 193.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.