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Pritzker orders independent review of DCFS, names new director

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, center, surveys flood damage with state and local emergency management personnel on Wednesday, March 20, 2019, Freeport, Ill. (Scott P. Yates/Rockford Register Star via AP)

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, center, surveys flood damage with state and local emergency management personnel on Wednesday, March 20, 2019, Freeport, Ill. (Scott P. Yates/Rockford Register Star via AP)

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday ordered an independent review of the state’s Department of Children and Family Services — and also named a new director — shining yet another spotlight on the embattled agency after the recent deaths of two toddlers.

Pritzker nominated Marc D. Smith, a Joliet resident and veteran social worker, to lead the troubled agency, which has seen an astounding 12 acting and interim directors within the last 10 years, according to the governor’s office.

Smith will have to deal with problems directors have faced for decades, including high caseloads for social workers, low wages for contracted employees, management issues within field offices and lengthy employment processes.

The governor’s office announced that the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall has been asked to conduct an independent and comprehensive review of the agency’s Intact Family Services functions — its in-home services meant to prevent children from coming into the system. Pritzker wants recommendations within six weeks.

Pritzker also named Smith, the executive vice president of Foster Care and Intact Services at Aunt Martha’s Health & Wellness, as his nominee to lead the agency. Smith’s nomination must still be confirmed by the state Senate.

Marc D. Smith. Photo from https://www.auntmarthas.org

Marc D. Smith. Photo from https://www.auntmarthas.org

Smith has spent more than two decades as a social worker, trainer and leader in child welfare, the governor’s office said.

The announcement comes on the heels of the death of two toddlers, including 2-year-old Ja’Hir Gibbons, who was allegedly beaten to death by her mother’s boyfriend. A contracted caseworker employed by Omni Youth Services in Buffalo Grove is accused of falsifying records after the boy’s death. Another toddler, 2-year-old Ta’Naja Barnes, was found dead last month in Decatur. An autopsy found she died of cold exposure, dehydration and malnourishment. In that case, the family also had previous involvement with DCFS.

DCFS officials on Tuesday told a Senate committee they’re requesting an extra $75 million in this year’s budget, which in part would help to pay for 126 additional service staffers.

State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, the chair of the House Committee on Adoption and Child Welfare, said the agency desperately needs a “stable, predictable workforce” with better wages. And she said she hopes the independent review will be able to provide a “strategic look at what the agency needs.”

And she believes, in part, smaller caseloads will ultimately trickle down to the care children are receiving.

“Children who are in the system, their success rate rises dramatically when it comes to successful foster care placement outcomes if they have the same case worker. That number drops dramatically when there is two or more case workers. When one leaves and the other takes over, all of the sensitive communication that goes on with the case worker and the child is lost when a new case worker is assigned,” Feigenholtz said. “I believe that this is emblematic of a very, very fragile collapsing system of purchase of care services.”

“This is an agency that is in pretty bad shape and it’s reflected in some of the outcomes that we’re seeing,” Feigenholtz said. “We really have to do better.”