Once again, then what?
Accompanying ongoing coverage of the pathetic state of the Department of Children and Family Services – read all 124 pages of a May 12 auditor general report if you have free time and thick skin – are repeated calls for Gov. JB Pritzker to fire agency head Marc Smith. Few people have suggested a second step.
Smith is the ninth person to lead DCFS on an acting or permanent basis in the last decade, which tracks with the agency’s history, as the average director tenure since 1964 is about two years. None of the current gubernatorial candidates lists DCFS as an issue on their campaign websites, or even substantially references the agency, and that includes Pritzker.
It was mid-May 2019 when Pritzker, just a few months on the job and sporting a blue ribbon signifying National Foster Care Month, stood with Smith in Springfield to speak about a report critical of the agency’s systemic problems and pledging reform.
“I am committed to carrying out that overhaul as quickly and effectively as possible and ensuring that Marc has the necessary resources and support to do that work,” Pritzker said. “Much of the work is already underway, and some will be completed over the next several weeks.”
Smith, acting director at the time, has been involved every day since those remarks and any improvements are more than offset by perpetual shortcomings. Ensuring any change at the top is more than symbolic would require significant investment beyond what’s already been tried not just during Pritzker’s tenure, but during the oversight of governors before him.
One man hoping to challenge Pritzker in November is downstate venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan, who counts two older foster daughters among his large family. Last week Sullivan wrote government needs “to partner with and empower faith and civic leaders in our state, and recruit great families to provide the service and love that the state of Illinois is clearly incapable of under JB Pritzker and the failed insiders in charge.”
The DCFS website has abundant information about becoming a foster or adoptive care family, including requirements, answers to common questions and the Heart Gallery of Illinois, a photo listing of “children in need of a forever family” who have encountered loss and trauma, many also dealing with emotional and behavioral challenges or other special needs.
Given negative publicity swirling around DCFS and the difficulty of providing good foster care even in a functioning system, it’s easy to grasp why we’re having such a hard time persuading people to embrace this particular labor of love.
Illinois must significantly improve DCFS, in operations and reputation, to meaningfully increase the supply of sufficient foster homes to anywhere near demand.