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DCFS director grilled by Illinois lawmakers over concerning audits, contempt of court charges

SPRINGFIELD (WGEM) – The director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services was in the hot seat Tuesday following several audits finding major flaws within the agency. Marc Smith has also been making headlines for several months as a Cook County judge has found the director in contempt of court 12 times for failing to properly place youth in care.

Smith told the Illinois Legislative Audit Commission that he is building an agency that will serve as a model for the nation. But how is that possible with children left in psychiatric wards for months or dying at the hands of abusive parents?

The Illinois Auditor General’s office documented 30 problems within the agency during a compliance examination spanning from 2018 to June of 2020. Eighteen of the 30 issues were repeated findings that the Auditor General wanted DCFS to fix in the past.

There are approximately 20,000 children in the DCFS system in Illinois, but the audits found the agency rarely tracks where these children are placed or whether they are healthy.

DCFS is required to conduct home safety checklists every time a child returns home. Although, auditors found 98% of the home safety checklists weren’t completed in 2020. Director Smith blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for limiting DCFS investigators.

The Auditor General’s office also found that DCFS did not ensure abused children were receiving the required aftercare services for six months after reuniting with their families. 58% of the cases documented by auditors found the children didn’t receive those services.

“Sometimes you have to be willing and able to drive a business model, drive a team, and drive a system in a direction while the waters are very choppy,” Smith said.

There have been significant improvements with the response on the Abuse and Neglect hotline and new protections created for investigators going into dangerous homes. However, many lawmakers are concerned Smith and other DCFS leaders aren’t focused on key priorities such as the safety and wellness of youth in care.

Auditors said required vaccine data for youth in care was mostly unreliable and many children did not have timely visits with doctors for physical exams, dental treatment, or vision testing.

“Don’t say, ‘Oh well, we’re still fixing the problems from three and a half years ago.’ Let’s start with the basics. When are the basics going to get taken care of,” asked Sen. Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet).

Also, no one is forgetting the fact that Smith has been held in contempt of court 12 times for failing to properly place youth in care while they waited months beyond their release dates from psychiatric hospitals. Smith told commission members that the department is challenging those findings and half have already been dropped by the Cook County court.

“DCFS, with the help of the governor’s office and the legislature, had been building our residential services for our high acuity children over the past three and a half years,” Smith said.

Other commission members want to know who is supervising and reviewing the work of staff. Rep. Tony McCombie (R-Savanna) has worked with Smith and DCFS investigators to improve protections, but she was disappointed in the lack of action and transparency from the department. McCombie stressed that DCFS staff are “working their tails off” without having direction from agency leaders to protect the state’s most vulnerable.

“They don’t have the automation. I feel like they don’t have the training. And then it’s always well, we don’t have the budget. But you can’t keep saying that,” McCombie said. “At some point, you just gotta figure this out.”

Smith said most of the problems found in the audits were caused by computer filing and staffing levels. Although, he told the Legislative Audit Commission that DCFS is adequately staffed today. Even though many have called for Smith to be fired or resign, the director said he still has the full confidence of the Pritzker administration.

“As someone who has spent my entire career committed to improving the child welfare system, I’m incredibly proud of the profile progress that we’ve made,” Smith said. “DCFS is having an impact when it matters most by keeping children safe, improving the lives of youth in care, and supporting families in crisis.”

Commission Co-chair Fred Crespo (D-Hoffman Estates) said the metric that really matters is the safety of kids and DCFS needs to step up to do a better job.

Meanwhile, Sen. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia) held a press conference outside the DCFS office in Springfield to respond to Tuesday’s hearing. The GOP candidate for governor said the problems within DCFS are a case of tragic incompetence. Bailey said Pritzker must own the mess within DCFS and fire Smith.

“You have to do more than throw money at problems. You have to roll up your sleeves and do the work of ensuring the job actually gets done,” Bailey said. “I have repeatedly called on you to fire director Marc Smith and I will do it again, and again, and again until he is gone.”

Bailey offered no other solutions to improve the state agency. The downstate lawmaker has also voted against every budget proposal that invested in DCFS over the past four years.

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