New DCFS chief: ‘We need to be transparent about the work we do.’

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A federal prosecutor turned corporate lawyer, Bobbie Gregg decided she didn’t want to retire in her mid-50s.

So she went back to school — enrolling at Loyola University in 2009 — and got her master’s degree in social work the following year. 

Now, at 58, Gregg has just accepted arguably the toughest social-work job in the state: director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. 

She’s never been a frontline child-welfare investigator or caseworker. But she says she hopes to use the skills she’s learned working for companies including Kraft, JPMorgan Chase and Aon to take a more businesslike approach to caring for the state’s most vulnerable kids.

“What my experience working in the business world has taught me [is], frankly, not as embedded in the social services as I’d like to see it,” Gregg told the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board Friday. “I think we need to be transparent about the work we do — and that we need to do it with compassion and with integrity.”

Part of that, Gregg said, is to better analyze and report child abuse and neglect deaths throughout the state. The Sun-Times and WBEZ examined 10 years’ worth of DCFS child-death data last year, finding that more children are dying from abuse and neglect statewide, with a growing number of those deaths occurring despite the child-welfare system’s involvement in investigating or monitoring those children.

Following those reports, DCFS admitted in December to undercounting by 11 the number of child-abuse and neglect deaths in the past five years. Gregg said DCFS officials now will review child deaths monthly — and collaborate with other states about possible trends behind such deaths.

Gregg, who will make $150,228-a-year as DCFS chief, also is looking to rebuild the agency’s fiscal credibility following a contracting scandal that erupted after Erwin McEwen resigned as DCFS director in 2011. 

Shortly after McEwen left, a report by the state’s executive inspector general accused George E. Smith, a friend of McEwen’s, of large-scale fraud involving state grant awards. Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued Smith in December to recover millions of dollars in grant money Smith allegedly misspent. No criminal charges have been filed.

“There have been criticisms of the department in the past about issues that have arisen with our contracts,” Gregg said. Fixing that requires “having the accountability internally — that we do what we’re supposed to do in the way we’re supposed to do it — but also holding our partners [private agencies and grant recipients] accountable for them to do the same.”

Gregg joined DCFS in February 2013, and most recently served as deputy chief of the agency’s Bureau of Operations.  She is the fourth person in the last six months to head the $1.12 billion agency, which has about 2,600 staff members.

The man who hired her, Richard Calica, resigned in November and died of cancer the following month.

Denise Gonzales, his chief of staff, was interim director until Quinn picked Arthur Bishop, then-head of the Department of Juvenile Justice, to replace Calica. But Bishop resigned following Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ reports that revealed he had a theft conviction and paternity case in his past.

Despite all the recent tumult at DCFS, Gregg said she’s looking forward to holding a top public-service job. Early in her career, she worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago and was a City Hall lawyer under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

She also has some familiarity with her boss, Gov. Quinn. The two graduated from Northwestern Law School together in 1980.

“It was a pretty small community,” she recalled. “I think Pat, because of the work he had done before in community organizing, was more of a public figure than people like me who came straight out of college and into law school. So I think everybody knew who he was.”

But Gregg then added, “I have had no contact with the governor since graduation.”

Chris Fusco is a Sun-Times staff reporter. Tony Arnold is a reporter for WBEZ.

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