OCT 05, 2023
DCFS Director Marc Smith, two other department heads to resign at end of 2023
DCFS Director Marc Smith addresses a legislative committee last year. [Blue Room Steam]
The sharply criticized director of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), Marc Smith, will resign at the end of 2023 along with the leaders of two other state agencies, Gov. JB Pritzker announced on Wednesday.
Smith along with Department of Healthcare and Family Services (HFS) Director Theresa Eagleson and Department on Aging Director Paula Basta will also step down at the end of the year. The changes are a major shake up in Pritzker’s administration, especially at DCFS. Smith took the job in April 2019 and will be the longest-serving DCFS director since 2011 with just over four-and-a-half years of service.
“I am incredibly proud of the profound progress we have made,” Smith said in a statement. “DCFS continues making a difference where it matters most – by keeping children safe, creating brighter futures for the youth in our care, and giving hope to families in crisis that need support. We are on our way to building a child welfare system in Illinois that will once again serve as a national model.”
Directors and acting directors have rotated through DCFS for the last 10 years, with some serving just a few months on the job.
“Smith leaves a mixed legacy,” Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert said in an email to The Daily Line. “On the one hand, in serving for four and a half years, Smith brought much needed consistency in leadership after DCFS rotated through 13 different directors and acting directors over the prior ten years.”
Golbert also fought Smith directly in court. In cases raised by the public guardian’s office, Smith was found in contempt of court multiple times in 2022 for failing to place children in proper care settings. In those instances, children languished in hospitals beyond their discharge date, sometimes for months, as they waited for placement by DCFS into a home or facility that could care for them. Other kids even remained in juvenile detention centers.
“Under Smith’s watch, we started to see children sleeping on the hard, cold floors of offices instead of in a warm, comfortable bed in an appropriate placement for the first time since the 1990s,” Golbert said. “This is now happening to hundreds of children every year. Also as a result of the placement shortage crisis, every year hundreds of DCFS’s children remain in a locked psychiatric hospital for weeks and months after they are cleared for discharge because DCFS has nowhere to place them.”
There’s also the deaths of children who died despite DCFS involvement. A report earlier this year found 171 children died in 2022 even after DCFS made contact with them, WGN reported. Smith took office when the death of AJ Freund of Crystal Lake grabbed headlines around the state, but kids in all areas of the state died in the following years despite DCFS contact. The safety of DCFS field workers also became an issue after one was killing near Springfield in early 2022.
Recent audits also revealed a trove of problems at DCFS — many that have existed for more than a decade and were not being fixed under Smith.
An audit released in May 2022 found the agency is not following up on children who are sent back to live with their parents or guardians, checking on the safety of homes or tracking new reports made by mandated reporters. It found DCFS officials were often returning children to their parents or guardians without completing safety checks or following up on the children’s welfare. The audit found the agency did not complete or document 98 percent of the Home Safety Checklists in 2020. The agency is supposed to complete the checklist any time a child returns to their home. The department also did not update the checklists with new requirements that took effect at the beginning of the year.
The department also did not have any data on reports from mandated reporters about children who had previously been abused, because their system was unable to track it the audit showed. Furthermore, the audit found 58 percent of kids who returned to their home weren’t receiving six months of “aftercare.”
Just last week, an annual compliance audit that covered July 2020 to June 2022 found issues dating back decades were still not being fixed. In total, the audit found 10 new violations by the agency and 23 that weren’t being fixed.
The 10 new violations included failing to keep segregation of duties at daycares, failure to comply with the school code, failure to comply with the Social Services Contract Notice Act, inefficient voucher processing, not fully using the resource planning system, inadequate controls over timesheets and vehicle maintenance, failure to comply with the Fiscal Control and Internal Auditing Act, not using locally-held funds properly and failure to comply with the Accountability for the Investment of Public Funds Act. Some of the audit’s findings date back to 1998, however. These include incomplete child welfare files, untimely determinations of child abuse and neglect and untimely initiation of investigations.
An overall theme of the audit released last week was that the department was failing to comply with requirements in the law about notifying law enforcement and schools about the progress of cases.
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Despite repeated struggles and bipartisan criticism, Gov. JB Pritzker stood by Smith and resisted suggestions to fire Smith, often citing the need to have stable leadership at the department.
“Despite the excellent quality of the candidates who will fill their shoes, their full impact on state government can never truly be articulated or replicated, and I thank them for their years of service,” Pritzker said in a statement Wednesday on his departing agency heads.
House Minority Leader Tony McCombie (R-Savanna) told The Daily Line Pritzker needs to appoint someone different from Smith, such as someone who has led a successful DCFS-like agency in another state, otherwise Smith’s departure won’t make a big difference.
“Under Marc’s leadership… whether it’s his leadership or he’s not empowered to make the changes or for whatever reason he’s not making the changes in how the agency is run… because of that, that’s where I think it’s time for Marc to go,” McCombie said. “If they replace him with somebody that is going to manage and lead in the same direction…there will be no change.”
A news release from Pritzker’s office said a national search will be conducted in the coming months to find Smith’s replacement.
“Having met with Marc Smith and members of his staff on many occasions, it is clear he recognizes the problems at DCFS run very deep,” Sen. Don DeWitte (R-St. Charles) said in a news release. “Unfortunately, our Governor has refused to make the same acknowledgement or take steps to fix this agency from the ground up. Changing the individual at the helm is not enough to fix DCFS; deep organizational changes are needed…We need to seek national expertise and identify best practices from states that are doing a good job with the welfare of children.”
At a news conference last week when asked if Smith should be fired, Rep. Steve Reick (R-Woodstock) noted Smith is just the latest director to struggle at the agency and changes would start with Pritzker.
"You could replace Marc Smith with St. Germaine Cousin, who's the patron saint of abused children, and nothing would change," Reick said.
The Senate makes the final decision about gubernatorial appointments, but McCombie said she’s looking for someone willing to make drastic changes at the agency who isn’t afraid to try something new and won’t stick to current processes.
“They’re going to take conversations and recommendations from the General Assembly, from the people in the agencies,” McCombie said, adding even trying pilot programs in one county to see if a new process works will be a good step forward.
Smith and Pritzker have insisted DCFS is an improved agency since Pritzker took office. The department’s budget has risen to more than $2 billion in Fiscal Year 2024 after it was at $1.2 billion in Fiscal Year 2019 when Pritzker was sworn in. New funding has helped eliminate the call backlog to the agency’s hotline and hiring more employees to fill desperately-needed positions. Funding has included safety protections for workers, new caseworker positions and funding for providers to increase space to care for children in DCFS care.
“Them throwing more money at DCFS isn’t working,” McCombie said. “If you want to throw more money at DCFS, then restructure it. Have the courage to make change.”
Other changes in Pritzker’s administration
Eagleson, HFS’ director, will also leave at the end of the year and has been on the job since the start of Pritzker’s administration. She will be replaced by Lizzy Whitehorn, who currently serves as First Assistant Deputy Governor for Health and Human Services. Eagleson departs as the department faces controversy from advocates and lawmakers who oppose changes the department has made to healthcare programs for undocumented immigrants.
Basta, the aging director, will also leave at the end of the year and has been on the job since the first months of Pritzker’s administration. A permanent nominee to lead the department was not named.
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