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DCFS director held in contempt of court as kids languish in hospital, shelter for months

In an “unprecedented” move, the state child welfare agency could soon be fined up to $2,000 a day until Director Marc Smith complies with a judge’s orders to appropriately place two children into proper homes.

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

A Cook County Juvenile Court judge took an extraordinary step this week in ordering the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services’ top official to be held in contempt of court for allegedly blundering two cases.

Judge Patrick Murphy on Thursday issued two contempt of court orders against DCFS Director Marc Smith in the cases of two children who were left sitting in facilities for months even though they were ready to be placed with families, records show. The state child welfare agency could soon be fined up to $2,000 a day until Smith complies with the order by appropriately placing those children into proper homes.

Longtime Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert, an appointed official who represents some of the county’s most vulnerable residents, called the judge’s move “unprecedented.”

“In the more than 30 years that I’ve been practicing in Juvenile Court, I cannot recall a single time when a judge has held the DCFS director — or any high-level DCFS official — in contempt of court,” Golbert said. “Nor can I recall a single time when a judge in Juvenile Court has ordered fines in this manner.”

One of the children awaiting placement is a 9-year-old girl who was malnourished as an infant and physically and sexually abused by family, records show. The girl, who’s been a DCFS ward for two years, was put into psychiatric care in April and has been ready to be discharged since June. Seven months later, she’s still there.

The other case involves a 13-year-old boy with “severe mental health issues” who was forced to sleep in a utility room before he was placed in a temporary housing shelter in Mount Vernon, about five hours away from Chicago. The shelter was supposed to be a “temporary” placement of no more than 30 days, but he’s been there now for more than 145 days.

Murphy ordered DCFS to be fined $1,000 a day per child until they are appropriately placed. That order, and the contempt orders against Smith, are on pause as the agency appeals.

In a statement, DCFS spokesperson William McCaffrey reiterated the department’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 two cases are just part of a much larger issue, according to Golbert. 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 said.

Judges are “sick and tired” of DCFS’ placement shortage problem, which is as severe now as it’s been in decades, according to Golbert — so much so, that the Juvenile Court created a special call just for children awaiting proper placement.

“Two years ago, for the first time since the 1990s, we started seeing DCFS’ kids sleeping on the floors of offices because DCFS had nowhere to place them,” Golbert said. “That’s something we haven’t seen in decades... It’s my sense that the judges are just fed up with all of this.”

DCFS lost 500 residential beds six years ago and planned to replace those spots with therapeutic foster home beds. But that didn’t happen, Golbert said.

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

“He came into the job knowing that priority No. 1 would have to be creating these placements and they’ve done nothing,” Golbert said. “In fact, by our count, DCFS’ net level of beds has actually decreased over the past three years.”

A spokesperson for the Democratic governor didn’t immediately return the Sun-Times’ request for comment.

Golbert offered some short- and long-term solutions for DCFS, including having existing partners expand capacity, and finding more partners to offer housing.

“I know what they’re gonna say, they’re gonna say, ‘Oh, this is so expensive. Oh, this is so hard.’ No. 1, these are children and DCFS is responsible for these children, and these children are our future, and it’s not acceptable for them to be locked up in psych wards for seven months like this little girl was,” he said. “No. 2, DCFS would actually save the taxpayers a lot of money by doing right by these kids,” Golbert said, adding that psychiatric hospitalization is “far more expensive than even the most expensive other types of placements.”

One of the orders against Smith is stayed until Wednesday afternoon, the other till Jan. 18.