Eye On Illinois: Fixing DCFS goes far beyond agency, state leadership

And then what?

That’s the question after reading a Monday news release from GOP gubernatorial candidate Richard Irvin headlined, “It’s time for Pritzker to remove DCFS director.”

Far from the only Republican hopeful to hammer Gov. JB Pritzker over serious problems with the Department of Children and Family Services, Irvin seized on what he called “another chapter in the string of failures at Pritzker’s state agencies.”

He’s not wrong. DCFS is badly broken, as I’ve written frequently. There also are notable problems with the Department of Veterans Affairs and troubling staff shortages in both education, law enforcement and natural resources, to name a handful.

Yet consider this quote from Irvin: “Decisive action must be taken in order to improve DCFS and ensure that no other children are wrongfully put in dangerous situations and abandoned by the state. Pritzker needs to take ownership of this failure and find a new responsible director who will right the wrongs of this agency.”

And then what?

That’s the question candidates need to answer for voters sincerely curious about pledges to be different. GOP candidates have no shortage of legitimate gripes about Pritzker’s brief tenure, and whether they choose to spend their primary attacking the incumbent or each other is something for their strategists to decide.

But we need look no further than Veterans Affairs, where Pritzker replaced his original appointee after a coronavirus outbreak at the La Salle home, to see how a new figurehead is only one step of a lengthy journey.

Specific to DCFS, the Senate confirmed Marc Smith as director only last June. Pritzker named Smith the acting director on April 15, 2019, the same day 5-year-old AJ Freund died in his Crystal Lake home, nearly seven years after the first DCFS call about his mother abusing prescription drugs and neglecting a foster child, the first of dozens of interactions with the family that nonetheless didn’t prevent this tragedy.

Democrat Pat Quinn was governor during that first call in June 2012. Republican Bruce Rauner had a four-year term before Pritzker took over. The DCFS director back then was Richard Calica. Eight other people held the post, on an acting or permanent basis, before Smith. DCFS dates to January 1964 and the average director tenure is about two years.

All of which suggests DCFS’ problems far exceed leadership. Smith keeps getting held in contempt of court because the agency isn’t placing certain children in compliance with judicial orders, but the director isn’t ignoring the mandates, he doesn’t have enough options.

Candidates understand this reality. One news release won’t solve a fundamentally broken agency.

No one has been able to answer “and then what?” but we might vote for the person who tries.

Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at

Scott Holland

Scott T. Holland

Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at