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DCFS director held in contempt of court in third child’s case

A Cook County judge on Thursday issued the order in the case of a 17-year-old boy who has been languishing in a psychiatric hospital since Sept. 10 because the state child welfare agency has nowhere to place him.

For the third time in eight days, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services’ top official was ordered to be held in contempt of court for allegedly violating children’s rights.
For the third time in eight days, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services’ top official was ordered to be held in contempt of court for allegedly violating children’s rights.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

For the third time in eight days, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services’ top official was ordered to be held in contempt of court for allegedly violating children’s rights.

Cook County Juvenile Court Judge Patrick Murphy on Thursday issued a contempt of court order against DCFS Director Marc Smith in the case of a 17-year-old boy who has been languishing in a psychiatric hospital since Sept. 10 because the state child welfare agency has nowhere to place him, longtime Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert said.

Golbert, an appointed official who represents some of the county’s most vulnerable residents, said the boy spent Christmas, his 17th birthday and New Year’s “locked up” in the hospital, where he remained Thursday.

DCFS could soon be fined up to $1,000 a day until Smith complies with the order by appropriately placing the teen into proper housing, though that order, and the contempt order against Smith, is on pause as the agency appeals.

The news comes less than a week after the Sun-Times reported that Smith was being held in contempt of court for allegedly blundering two cases. One child awaiting placement was a 9-year-old girl who remained in psychiatric care despite being ready to be discharged for seven months. The other, a 13-year-old Chicago boy, was forced to sleep in a utility room before being placed in a temporary shelter in Mount Vernon, Ill. — where he had been for more than 145 days.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin on Monday called the judge’s orders a “damning indictment” on DCFS and demanded a hearing to hold Smith accountable.

The two children at the center of the previous contempt of court orders have been placed in appropriate housing, DCFS told the court Thursday. The judge purged the contempt finding at the agency’s request.

“I’m glad that these two children have finally been placed. That’s fantastic news for these children. That’s why we asked for the contempt findings in the first place,” Golbert said in an email to the Sun-Times. “But 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.”

Over the last year, more than 350 children in DCFS care were languishing in psychiatric hospitals for an average of 55 days “for no reason other than DCFS had nowhere to place them,” the public guardian previously said.

DCFS’ placement problem has become so bad that the Juvenile Court created a special call just for children awaiting proper placement.

Smith, whom Gov. J.B. Pritzker appointed as DCFS director in 2019, inherited the placement-shortage crisis and hasn’t been able to tackle the issue.

Golbert said putting children up in psychiatric hospitals is a “huge waste of taxpayer money,” noting it’s much more costly than any other placement type and is not eligible for federal reimbursement.

“This wastes more than $6.2 million of scarce tax dollars every year. This is money that could be used to expand placement capacity,” Golbert said.

In a statement, DCFS spokesperson William McCaffrey reiterated the agency’s dedication “to keeping children safe and strengthening families.”

“We are working aggressively [to address] the decades-long challenge of a lack of community resources and facilities for children with complex behavioral health needs, which has been exacerbated by an increased demand in social services in recent years,” McCaffrey said. “Every single day, DCFS works with its network of providers and foster parents in an ongoing effort to place these children in settings that can provide the appropriate level of care and in which the children can grow and flourish.”

The most recent order against Smith is stayed until Jan. 20.