Only bold action will keep the momentum going to reform DCFS

A judge issued a third contempt of court order against the state’s top child welfare official regarding psychiatric placements of troubled children. It is, as one legislator says, a “wake-up call.”

SHARE Only bold action will keep the momentum going to reform DCFS
Illinois DCFS Director Marc Smith was held in contempt of court last week over the cases of two children who were left sitting in facilities for months, records show.

Illinois DCFS Director Marc Smith was held in contempt of court last week over the cases of two children who were left sitting in facilities for months, records show.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The latest chapter in the long-running saga of Illinois’ failure to protect its most vulnerable children featured a Cook County Juvenile Court Judge taking an extraordinary step: Throwing the book at the state’s top child welfare official.

Judge Patrick Murphy issued a third contempt of court order Thursday against Department of Children and Family Services Director Marc Smith. It was the third such order in the past eight days involving children who were kept in psychiatric facilities for months even though they were ready to be placed with families.

Sometimes, bold steps like this are necessary.

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If you’re wondering whether that’s the case here, consider the story of the 9-year-old girl who suffered from malnourishment as an infant and physical and sexual abuse by family. She had been a DCFS ward for two years, and was ready to be discharged from a psychiatric facility in June 2021.

The girl was still in a facility at the time of Murphy’s contempt order last week — but since then, the agency has found her an appropriate placement.

Or consider the 13-year-old boy with “severe mental health issues” who had been forced to sleep in a utility room before he was placed in a temporary housing shelter in Mount Vernon. The shelter was supposed to house him for no more than a month, but he had been there for more than 145 days.

He’s now been placed in appropriate housing too.

Let’s hope that happens soon for the 17-year-old boy who’s been in a psychiatric hospital since last September because the agency can’t find a placement for him. His case prompted the judge’s latest contempt order on Thursday.

As Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert wrote in an email to the Sun-Times, “It shouldn’t take months and months, multiple hearings, multiple court orders, contempt of court findings against the DCFS Director, and sanctions for DCFS to finally do right by its kids.”

Since 2018, the agency has been the target of a lawsuit filed by Golbert alleging that the agency let hundreds of foster children with mental health problems languish in psychiatric hospitals for months after doctors had cleared them to be discharged. Over the last year, more than 350 children in DCFS care were languishing in psychiatric hospitals for lack of appropriate placements.

A ‘wake-up call’

Smith, who was appointed in 2019, inherited the job of fixing a problem he didn’t create. To do so, Smith has to turn around an agency plagued for years by chronic understaffing and other failures.

The judge’s bold move insures that those in power don’t grown numb to the stories of troubled children stuck in a dysfunctional system. We hope it insures that public officials take steps to make sure that DCFS institutes the systemic reforms the agency has long promised to make.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said last week that the contempt orders were a “wake-up call to the General Assembly,” and he and other Republican lawmakers want hearings on the issue. We support that idea.

We also want to call attention to other steps lawmakers should consider to improve hiring for our state’s troubled child welfare agency. These steps are even more critical, we think, because of the tragic murder earlier this month of DCFS worker Deidre Silas during a visit to check on six children in a home in downstate Thayer.

State Rep. Maurice West (D-Rockford) plans to introduce legislation to streamline hiring so that DCFS can eventually have two people go out on calls — a good safety measure, in our view. State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) has plans for legislation to give DCFS workers benefits in line with emergency responders, such as better pensions.

Promises made, not kept

Illinoisans have heard promises of change in DCFS before. First come the shameful headlines about traumatized children stuck in the system, followed by reports about chronic understaffing and workers doing their best in difficult circumstances. The same stories are written, again and again.

Taking action in individual cases is a good step, but not enough.

“It’s really about systemic reform, not about individual cases,” Ed Yohnka, director of communications for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, told us. The ACLU first filed a lawsuit against DCFS for failing children in its care in 1988.

“The only way that we are ever going to get to a point where we don’t have the need for these kind of individual interventions,” Yohnka said, “is if we actually force DCFS to create the resources that are necessary to serve kids.”

It’s up to our leaders to keep up the momentum for change.

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