DCFS needs grade-A leadership to overcome systemic failures

With the impending departure of Marc Smith, Gov. J.B. Pritzker is back to searching for a new director who is willing and capable of tackling the child welfare agency’s intractable problems.

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Marc Smith, director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Judge Patrick Murphy on Thursday issued two contempt of court orders against DCFS director Marc Smith for violating rights of two children left sitting in facilities for months, records show.

Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Director Marc Smith on Wednesday announced he would step down from his high-profile post by the year’s end.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

When Marc Smith took over the reins at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services in 2019, the Sun-Times Editorial Board warned that he would be set up for failure if he and the beleaguered agency did not receive adequate support.

The agency secured more financial help, as its budget nearly doubled since Smith was named director, as Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert noted.

Financial support is only part of the equation. After nearly five years under Smith, there’s no doubt the agency is still not where it needs to be in order to protect the state’s most vulnerable children. Exhibit A: The highly critical Illinois auditor general’s report, released a week before Smith announced his resignation Wednesday, that found more than two dozen instances of agency noncompliance.

That Smith lasted five years in a tough, high-turnover job, through a pandemic, is to his credit. The problems he inherited, including high caseloads for social workers and low wages for contracted employees, date back decades and make the job one of the hardest in state government.

Editorial

Editorial

But Illinois still has to do better. Smith’s tenure was marred by too many missteps. And now Gov. J.B. Pritzker has his work cut out for him to find a willing and capable successor.

Delays, court citations, another damning audit

“We are running and working at the highest level I believe that this agency has ever worked at,” Smith said to his staffers as he relayed the news that he’d be stepping down by the end of the year.

Sadly, that’s not a high bar to clear, given DCFS’ many egregious failures over the years when it comes to protecting children in the agency’s care. So while there are many excellent, hard-working DCFS employees, Smith is overstating the agency’s general productivity, according to the auditor general’s report, Golbert and at least one Cook County judge.

Under Smith’s leadership, DCFS failed to immediately alert states’ attorneys in 28% of abuse and neglect reports tied to children who had tested positive for a controlled substance, the auditor general’s report found.

The agency also delayed notifying state agencies about child abuse incidents that allegedly took place while the boys and girls were being treated at a hospital.

The delays were anywhere from over a month to 885 days — more than two years.

Smith was found in contempt of court multiple times during his tenure for failing to find permanent homes for children in the agency’s care, though at least 10 of the findings were overturned on appeal. But as Golbert told the Sun-Times’ Tina Sfondeles, placements for children have been so scarce that some boys and girls were forced to sleep on the floors of DCFS offices, while others remained in psychiatric hospitals and juvenile jails well after they had been cleared to leave.

When empty beds were available, there were too few employees to watch the children, said Golbert.

And last year, a damning state audit found that the agency had failed to implement Ta’Naja’s Law, named after a Decatur 2-year-old who died of malnutrition and hypothermia six months after being returned to her family. The law required something so basic — having caseworkers fill out a home safety checklist when a child leaves foster care and is returned to their home, plus providing aftercare referrals to parents — that we couldn’t figure out why DCFS had yet to put it into practice.

A dozen DCFS directors came and went in the decade before Pritzker selected Smith to head the agency.

Give Smith credit for sticking around and shepherding the agency through a pandemic.

Let’s hope Pritzker’s replacement has a long tenure too, enough time to truly tackle the challenge of transforming the agency — and protecting the state’s most vulnerable kids.

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