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EDITORIAL: Illinois must step up and support new DCFS boss, for sake of children

New DCFS Director Marc D. Smith | Aunt Martha's Health and Wellness photo

Too many children are tragic victims of appalling systemic flaws within the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

But with the nomination of a new DCFS leader by a new governor, along with other possible reforms, Illinois stands an honest chance at making things better.

It is essential that this happen, as yet two more distressing stories in the news make clear.

Last week in Chicago, a 2-year-old boy, Ja’hir Gibbons, allegedly was beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend. Last month in Decatur, another 2-year-old, Ta’Naja Banes, was found dead, having succumbed to exposure to the cold, dehydration and malnourishment.

The families of both toddlers had previous involvement with DCFS.

A report in January by the agency’s inspector general states that 98 children involved with DCFS died in the state’s 2018 fiscal year.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has nominated Marc D. Smith, the respected executive vice president of foster care and intact services at Aunt Martha’s Health & Wellness in Olympia Fields, to lead DCFS. Smith will be the 13th acting or interim director of the agency in just ten years.

Pritzker also has called for an independent review of the agency’s Intact Family Services functions by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall. And with the governor’s support, DCFS hopes to see a $75 million increase in its budget, allowing the agency to hire 126 more staffers and reduce average caseloads.

All of this, though, is not enough.

DCFS outsources 85 percent of its cases to community-based agencies around the state, but those agencies — struggling themselves due to years of underfunding by the state — are to get less than 10 percent of the new money.

Illinois relies heavily on private-agency caseworkers, who are required to have a bachelor’s degree in a human services profession and several months of training and certification. But how well are these people compensated for doing an extremely difficult job?

On average, they are paid a starting salary of less than $14 an hour.

Community-based agencies say they have a tough time keeping good employees, who sometimes move out of state to take similar jobs for better pay. Or they get a job at Taco Bell or Menards.

Many of the children entering the DCFS system have experienced major trauma, and they recover and thrive best when they can work with, and be watched over, by one consistent caseworker. But because state funding is so limited, nonprofit agencies say, they cannot maintain a stable, reliable work force.

To address the funding shortage, state Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, has introduced a bill to provide another $30.8 million for nonprofit community-based providers. But it will take more than that — and more than money — to get DCFS headed in a better direction. Twenty years ago, the agency was close to emerging from under federal court oversight, but not now.

“This is a systemic crisis, [and] this requires systemic reform,” Andrea Durbin, chief executive officer of Illinois Collaboration on Youth, told us on Thursday. “It means we need a lot of stakeholders to rebuild the child welfare system.”

Among the problems child welfare advocates say the system faces are:

• lllinois leads the country in the length of time children spend in foster care or institutions, which means they are not being returned to their families or adopted.

• Young people who turn 21 without ever having been returned to their families or adopted are unlikely to get an associate’s degree by age 24. Instead, they disproportionately experience homelessness and unemployment, and they self-report having engaged in multiple delinquent or criminal offenses.

• Caseworkers are handling far more than the acceptable average of 12.75 cases, and more than 1,000 cases that should have been resolved within 60 days — giving a child a sense of permanency and stability — still are open.

• Children are stuck in psychiatric hospitals, which can be devastating to a child’s overall progress, as the number of beds shrinks in residential treatment facilities. The hospitals have nowhere to send kids.

• DCFS has stopped being transparent about sharing data with child advocates and the public.

The new director of DCFS — whom ACLU Illinois Legal Director Benjamin S. Wolf likes to say has the hardest job in state government — will have to deal with families torn apart by opioids, meth labs, violence and poverty.

Marc D. Smith can’t even begin to do that job alone. If we fail as a state to support him, with more funding and other resources, we’re just setting him up for failure.

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