DCFS director found in contempt for third time for failing to place child

The department will not have to pay fines in the two contempt charges from Jan. 9, as suitable homes were found for the kids

With then acting DCFS Director Marc Smith looking on, Gov. JB Pritzker (left) talks in May 2019 about addressing the recommendations in a study for reforming the state’s Department of Children and Family Services.

Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Director Marc Smith was found in contempt of court for the third time this month for failing to place a child in an appropriate care setting within a reasonable amount of time.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Patrick Murphy ruled Thursday that DCFS has until Jan. 20 to place a 17-year-old boy in an appropriate care facility or face a daily fine of $1,000. The boy has been in a psychiatric hospital in Chicago since the summer.

“He is treated like a second- or third-class citizen, and I’m asking you to stop it now,” said Brian Finley, a lawyer from the Cook County Public Guardian’s Office.

The boy, who suffers from mental health issues, has been in state custody since late 2019, Ashira Bowen, a foster care supervisor for Children’s Home and Aid, told the judge. He has been in and out of the hospital for various problems over the last two years and was living with a relative. However, he was found living in “deplorable” conditions at a home last summer that was not the home of his caregiver, and was taken to the hospital where he remains.

Nine of 17 potential facilities declined to take the boy, but two agreed, Bowen said. However, the boy remains on a waiting list at each facility because no bed space is available.

“DCFS is doing what it can to comply with this court’s orders and place [the boy],” Assistant Illinois Attorney General Alex Moe argued on behalf of the agency.

Moe said DCFS understands they have an obligation to place the child, but they can’t control some things, such as staffing at a facility.

“There are a number of issues that make it difficult for DCFS to accept [the boy] and get him in a bed. … DCFS should not be punished for its inability to control things that it cannot control,” Moe said.

Smith, who was appointed DCFS director by Gov. JB Pritzker in 2019, did not appear in court Thursday.

On Jan. 8, Murphy found Smith in contempt on two other cases where children were being held in psychiatric hospitals beyond the 30 days they are supposed to be there. The lack of bed space was also a problem in those cases.

On Thursday, Murphy lifted the $1,000-per-day sanctions against Smith in those two cases after a suitable care space was found for both and DCFS did not have to begin paying any fines.

Over 300 kids across Illinois are being kept in facilities beyond their discharge date because of the lack of bed space in the DCFS system, according to the Cook County Public Guardian’s Office and court documents, a number that is four times higher than it was four years ago.

DCFS was supposed to create alternative care spaces several years ago when they closed about 500 beds, Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert said. But they never did and now the state’s bed numbers are at their worst, he said.

“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.

DCFS has worked to correct the problems from previous administrations and they think they are making progress in reforming the agency, Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said in a statement. A $340 million increase in DCFS’ budget and hiring 860 staff have been important steps that have allowed them to make improvements, she said.

“None of this work happened overnight, but thanks to the expertise and willpower of Director Smith and the DCFS leadership team, the department is experiencing real progress for the first time in a decade,” Abudayyeh said.

DCFS has added 60 beds under the Pritzker administration and expects 18 more beds will be added soon, Abudayyeh said.

Smith being found in contempt of court is one of several issues DCFS has faced over the Past two weeks. A DCFS employee conducting a home visit in Sangamon County on Jan. 4 was murdered. It was also reported DCFS had previously had custody of 6-year-old Damari Perry, a North Chicago boy found dead in Gary, Indiana, last week after allegedly being abused by family members.

The events have Republican state lawmakers calling for investigations into DCFS.

“The actions, or lack thereof, of DCFS over the past years have raised a lot of questions about DCFS policies and call into question the leadership of the current director,” state Rep. Tom Weber, R-Fox Lake, said in a statement.

On Monday, Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, sent a letter to state Rep. Camille Lilly, D-Oak Park, requesting she convene hearings of the Human Services Appropriations Committee to look into the latest issues surrounding DCFS.

“The unprecedented step by the Cook County judiciary to hold Director Smith in contempt needs to be a wake-up call to the General Assembly,” Durkin said.

Weber said lawmakers must act on legislation to help address these problems. One includes the AJ Freund Act, which would require DCFS to share reports of abuse or neglect of children with appropriate law enforcement agencies. DCFS would still be the primary investigating agency under the bill.

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