MAR 04, 2022
DCFS director points to progress on child placements, but lawmakers and advocates don’t buy it
Department of Children and Family Services Director Marc Smith, orange tie, speaks to members of the House Appropriations- Human Services Committee Thursday.
Lawmakers and advocates blasted Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) Director Marc Smith during his agency’s appropriation hearing Thursday, even after Smith said the department was making progress toward ensuring the safety of its employees and the children under its care.
Smith appeared in front of the House Appropriations - Human Services Committee Thursday to present the department’s Fiscal Year 2023 budget request, but lawmakers and department officials spent little time discussing the specific request. Smith spent more than a half hour touting progress the department has made under his leadership, angering lawmakers who then called his bluff and said DCFS was making little progress fixing their array of problems.
“I got some concerns, I got a lot of questions,” Rep. Rita Mayfield (D-Waukegan) said. “I have a lack of confidence in DCFS and your current administration and your leadership abilities over there.”
Since the beginning of the year, Smith has been found in contempt of court several times for failing to place children in proper care settings, an investigator was murdered in Sangamon County and a child was murdered in North Chicago even after complaints were made to the agency that the kid may be in danger.
“Every year you guys come back and ask us for more money,” Mayfield said. “You tell us the same stories that you’re going to hire more case managers, but nothing happens.”
Gov. JB Pritzker’s proposed budget for DCFS includes $250 million in new funding to hire 360 new employees, build partnerships with private institutions to raise the agency’s capacity to care for children, train employees and help children in care transition out of the system.
“The challenges are real,” Smith said. “We are transforming and rebuilding a statewide system of community support that has been disseminated in previous administrations.”
Smith touted reducing the backlog at the department’s call center under his administration and said 90 new beds have been added since 2019. He also downplayed four recent contempt of court charges he has faced from a Cook County judge for failing to place children in a proper care setting.
Related: DCFS director defends department’s work amid issues placing kids and keeping employees safe
“Many of those cases we were able to place relatively quickly,” Smith said. “I think the overall issue becomes, how do we manage those kids that are coming to us and are in the psychiatric hospital?”
DCFS did place the four children within days of the contempt charges against Smith that included daily financial penalties if the kids remained in psychiatric hospitals. However, that was after the kids were stuck in psychiatric hospitals for months longer than necessary.
“You’re not placing them very quickly,” Rep. Kathleen Willis (D-Addison) said. “You would not be held in contempt of court if you were placing them quickly.”
Attorney Danielle Gomez from the Cook County Public Guardian’s office said the average number of days kids are kept in hospitals beyond their discharge date grew by 55 days last year to 80 days this year.
“It is time that we stop trying really hard and get it done,” Gomez said.
When pressed by Willis, Smith side-stepped a question about how many kids are still awaiting placement by the agency. DCFS Department Director Tim Snowden said the agency has six to 10 kids being housed in what they call “welcome centers” while they await placement.
Lawmakers grilled Smith and other department officials in September following reports that some children in DCFS care were staying overnight in office while they awaited placement.
Related: DCFS chief defends bunking foster kids in offices amid grilling from lawmakers, county official
Heidi Dalenberg from the American Civil Liberties Union said 46 kids are now stuck in hospitals beyond medical necessity. She said she thought the Cook County judge was acting with restraint by not bringing even more contempt charges to compel DCFS to place the kids.
Dalenberg said she was “bewildered” by Smith’s testimony about progress at the agency but said she supports Pritzker’s budget request because DCFS needs “every penny.”
Lawmakers hope DCFS leaders can spend their appropriations wisely. Mayfield said she has lost trust in the agency after they have failed for years to clean up internal problems.
“You’re not fixing any of your financial issues, and yet here we are trusting you with our children,” Mayfield said.
The committee’s chair Rep. Camille Lilly (D-Chicago) said she will hold more hearings to discuss issues at the department.
“As you know, we’re very passionate about our children, so please take this as we’re a part of your team,” Lilly said.
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