Three Republican state House members called for hearings into the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services on Thursday, Jan. 13 out of concerns for workers’ safety, improper placements of state wards and the recent death of North Chicago boy.
Reps. Steven Reick, R-Woodstock, Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, and Tom Weber, R-Lake Villa, held a news conference Thursday to demand that DCFS Director Marc D. Smith appear and answer questions. They called on their Democratic colleagues and Gov. J.B. Pritzker to join their calls for hearings.
“For the past three years, members of the House and Senate of both parties have tried to peel the onion that is DCFS to find the root causes of their failures,” Reick said. “And the only conclusion that we could draw is that the agency is irretrievably broken and that no amount of money will solve its systematic failures.”
DCFS has come under fire in recent weeks for three incidents: the death of a caseworker, the death of a child in a family where abuse allegations were reported, and a contempt citation issued against Director Smith for failing to move children to appropriate placements.
Child protection investigator Deidre Silas worked for the department for six months when she was sent alone to a house in Thayer on Jan. 4 to check on the welfare of six children. Silas was found dead by Sangamon County Sheriff’s deputies. She had been bludgeoned and stabbed. Benjamin Reed, 32, who lived at the home, was later charged with Silas’ murder. She was the mother of two children.
In a separate incident, 6-year-old Damari Perry was found dead in an abandoned building in Gary, Indiana. Damari was taken into the state’s care in 2015, but was returned to his mother’s care, along with his siblings, two years later. Two subsequent abuse allegations were received by DCFS, including an allegation that the mother wrote a note threatening harm to Damari.
On Dec. 29, prosecutors said Damari was punished with a shower in cold water. He vomited, went unresponsive and later died. Jannie Perry, the boy’s mother, and two siblings face charges in connection with his death.
Smith himself faces a contempt citation in two Cook County juvenile cases with a $1,000-a-day fine for as long as he leaves the children in their current placements. A 9-year-old girl, known as A.M. in court records, was placed in a locked psychiatric facility. The girl suffered horrific sexual and physical abuse at the hands of a parent, including being forced to have sex with adults. Despite court orders to place the girl in a therapeutic foster care setting, the 9-year-old currently was held in a locked psychiatric unit for more than 223 days.
The other case involved a child known as C.R.M. who was also ordered on Nov. 14 to be taken out of temporary shelter where he was confined since Aug. 14 when he was placed in a temporary shelter in Mount Vernon — 279 miles from Chicago where his mother lives. Before that, C.R.M., who has severe mental health issues, was at another temporary shelter in Chicago where he slept in a utility room. At that time, DCFS told the court that the child needed a therapeutic foster home placement. The Mount Vernon shelter is a temporary placement for children for less than 30 days. C.R.M. had been at the shelter more than 150 days.
The contempt citation was issued after numerous violations of court orders to remove the children and put them in appropriate placements.
“The Department of Children and Family Services is dedicated to keeping children safe and strengthening families. We are working aggressively addressing the decades-long challenge of a lack of community resources and facilities for children with complex behavioral health needs, which has been exacerbated by an increased demand in social services in recent years,” DCFS spokesman Bill McCaffery said. “Every single day, DCFS works with its network of providers and foster parents in an ongoing effort to place these children in settings that can provide the appropriate level of care and in which the children can grow and flourish.”
Both of the contempt citations were purged and the fines vacated at a Cook County hearing on the morning of Jan. 13. Smith was found in contempt in the case of a 17-year-old boy who has been in a locked psychiatric hospital since September. The court ordered sanctions of $1,000 per day until DCFS appropriately places the child, to start on Jan. 18. At the DCFS director’s request, the court stayed the order until Jan. 20 for DCFS to seek appellate review.
It isn’t money that is the barrier to proper placement, said Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert. Therapeutic foster care costs much less than psychiatric hospitalization and is not eligible for federal reimbursement.
“This wastes more than $6.2 million of scarce tax dollars every year. This is money that could be used to expand placement capacity,” Golbert said.
DCFS has placed 356 children statewide in inappropriate settings for an average of 55 days, according to Golbert. The court order noted that in 2020, DCFS had 314 wards in psychiatric hospitals beyond the date of discharge. In 2014, there were 75 DCFS wards in mental health facilities beyond the date of discharge. That number doubled in 2015 to 168.
The agency has closed almost 500 residential beds since 2015, leaving a vast shortfall for placing children in their care. Those residential beds were closed because the agency was opting for foster homes that provided specialized services. Those placements never materialized.
“It should come as no surprise that members of the GOP are once again using our state’s most vulnerable as pawns in their political games,” Pritzker spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh said. “This is the same party that stood behind (former Gov.) Bruce Rauner as he decimated social services and recklessly cut 500 beds for youth in care without creating alternative placements. They repeatedly voted against increased funding for DCFS, resulting in dangerously low staffing levels. As the administration has repeatedly made clear, these reckless decisions destroyed lives quickly, but it will take years to undo that damage.”
DCFS has a $1 billion budget, but money to hire more caseworkers isn’t the solution, Weber said.
“Failed leadership cannot be fixed by more money or more employees. When you see a pattern of children being taken away from then returned to their mother and years later that child is murdered, these are patterns that aren’t going to be fixed by more money. This is something that can only be address by an investigation of the failed policies of DCFS and its leadership,” the state representative said.
Abudayyeh said Pritzker’s administration inherited a DCFS that had been systemically hollowed out and underfunded.
“Since taking office, the governor increased DCFS’ budget by over $340 million with DCFS launching aggressive hiring efforts to bring on 860 additional staff,” she said. “These investments passed without the support of the Republicans in General Assembly.”