DCFS director held in contempt for two kids stuck in system

Agency blames ‘bottleneck’ for months-long delays, but judge will impose daily $1,000 fines in each case if suitable homes are not found

In this May 13, 2019 photo, Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Acting Director Marc Smith discusses a review by the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall policy research center of the DCFS Intact Family Services program, during a press event at DCFS, in Chicago. A study released Wednesday, May 15, 2019, has found that Illinois' child welfare agency is so intent on keeping children with their parents and not putting them in foster care despite strong indications that they've been physically abused or neglected that it has put those children in greater danger. (Ashlee Rezin/Sun Times via AP)/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

A Cook County judge found Illinois Department of Child and Family Services Director Marc Smith in contempt of court Thursday for failing to follow court orders to place two children in adequate care.

Judge Patrick Murphy from the Cook County Circuit Court’s child protection division found Smith in contempt in two separate cases of a girl age 9 and a boy whose age was not given. Both are Cook County residents. The charges will force DCFS to pay $1,000 a day in each case until each child can be placed in appropriate care.

“These kids are our future and not throw-away children,” said Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert. “They’re real children. In my view, DCFS has the most important job in all of state government and unfortunately, DCFS is also the most inefficient in all of state government.”

“DCFS’s placement crisis is the worst it’s ever been.”

—  Charles Golbert, Cook County Public Guardian

Golbert’s office filed motions asking the judge to make DCFS act so as to move the children into proper care settings. He said the court has created a specific docket of cases of children who are not moving through the system that Murphy hears cases on.

Golbert called the decision to hold Smith in contempt and impose a daily fine “unprecedented,” but hopes it will compel DCFS to act.

Both cases are representative of a larger problem with DCFS, Golbert said.

The 9-year-old girl has been in DCFS custody for more than two years, court documents show, and came from an abusive family where she suffered physical and sexual abuse for several years. In April 2021, she was placed in a psychiatric hospital and scheduled to be discharged on June 1, but remains at the hospital today. In October 2021, the court ordered DCFS two times to find a proper shelter for the girl, but Smith said Thursday the agency has been turned down by multiple facilities.

The boy, a Chicago resident, has been in state custody at a shelter in Mount Vernon, a city about four hours south of Chicago, since August, court documents show. He was supposed to be there for 30 days, but remains in Mount Vernon today. Regional DCFS Director Jacqueline Dortch told the court Thursday eight potential homes have declined to take the boy.

According to court documents, the reason DCFS can’t place the children into appropriate facilities is because of a “bottleneck” in the system. Children are being kept in facilities beyond their discharge date, preventing DCFS from moving other kids in to fill their spot.

In the girl’s case, she was accepted by a home, but the facility had 12 children who were there beyond the date they were supposed to be discharged, preventing the home from taking the girl in, according to court documents.

“DCFS’s placement crisis is the worst it’s ever been,” Golbert said.

More than 300 kids throughout the state are being kept in facilities past their discharge date, a number that is four times higher than it was in 2014, according to court documents. Golbert said they are kept for an average of 55 days over their discharge date, and when added up throughout the system, comes out to “50 years of wasted children’s lives in one year.”

“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 McCaffrey said in a statement.

In his ruling, Murphy said the cases show DCFS has “no strategy on how to deal with this crisis although it has been years in the making.”

“The director’s defense, that despite his best efforts, he cannot find an adequate placement for the child, lacks a scintilla of credibility when he, his agents and predecessors have closed almost 500 residential beds and failed to create alternatives,” Murphy wrote.

DCFS was supposed to create alternatives, Golbert said. They had planed to replace the 500 shuttered beds with new therapeutic facilities, a better form of care, Golbert said. Instead, he says DCFS closed the beds and never followed through on plans for new facilities.

“Now all we have is a 500-bed deficit in the system,” Golbert said. “The system is just in shambles right now.”

Murphy said in his ruling he decided to hold Smith in contempt for refusing to provide adequate care for the two children, which has caused DCFS to violate the constitutional rights to proper care for both children.

DCFS did not address in their statement on the contempt charges what Smith’s plan of action will be to satisfy the judge. Smith has until Wednesday to work on appeals to the charges before the $1,000 per day fine begins in the girl’s case, and until Jan. 18 in the boy’s case.

“I suspect that DCFS will magically, after months and months, will find placements,” Golbert said. “That’s what I hope will happen. … but for God’s sake, it shouldn’t take months of litigating and contempt of court findings for DCFS to just do their job for these kids.”

Ben Szalinski

Ben Szalinski

Ben is a former Northwest Herald who reported on local news in Harvard, Marengo, Huntley and Lake in the Hills along with the McHenry County Board. He graduated from the University of Illinois Springfield Public Affairs Reporting program in 2021. Ben is originally from Mundelein.