January 30, 2023

It’s time to dismantle DCFS and start over

It’s time for Gov. JB Pritzker and the Democrats in the General Assembly to do the right thing: take ownership of the problems at the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), dismantle it and start over again.

DCFS is a mess. Pritzker and his staff know it, too. They surely sat in horror watching the story of little AJ Freund unfold. He was a 5-year-old boy killed by his mother, wrapped in plastic, and buried in a shallow grave in McHenry County.

DCFS had been alerted multiple times about the mother’s drug addiction, domestic disputes, abandonment, squalor, and unsafe living conditions. DCFS never found those reports “credible” and still returned the child to his parents even after they had clearly fallen into the depths of drug addiction. The timeline of the failures is sickening.

The governor and his staff surely felt the weight when DCFS caseworker Deidre Silas was stabbed to death south of Springfield when conducting a home inspection earlier this year. Her murder came after another caseworker, Pam Knight of Dixon, was killed in 2017 when she attempted to remove a 2-year-old boy from the custody of his father.

Patrick Pfingsten

How did the governor and legislature respond to the Silas murder? By passing legislation allowing caseworkers to carry pepper spray.

Pepper spray?

Pepper spray.

He may not show it to the public, but Pritzker can’t be happy with the way his agency is protecting kids. DCFS Director Marc Smith has been held in contempt by a judge a dozen times over improper placements of children. And we’re not talking about putting them in a home in the wrong town.

One high profile case involved a 15-year-old boy with special needs who was forced to remain in a psychiatric unit despite a medical release. He remained in the psychiatric hospital for more than two months.

Instead of a vision for reimagining DCFS and stopping the merry-go-round of contempt rulings, harmed children and employees afraid for their lives, what did the Pritzker administration do? It blamed former Gov. Bruce Rauner.

“DCFS is working hard to find placements for these vulnerable children with special needs. Tragically, when Gov. (Bruce) Rauner decimated social services, we were warned that it would be much easier to lose the 500 beds he destroyed than to re-create them again. Advocates warned that these services weren’t like a light switch that could be turned on and off with ease,” spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh told Capitol News Illinois in April.

But while the problems may be getting worse during the Pritzker administration, they aren’t new problems.

In his State of the State address, an Illinois governor said, “Our child welfare system is not broke, it is broken.”

That wasn’t JB Pritzker.

That was Jim Edgar.

In 1993.

In his first few months in office, Pritzker pledged to “overhaul” DCFS. It has only gotten worse.

There are those who believe the agency can’t be repaired.

“There are just way too many problems with DCFS that make me think it is an agency that can’t be fixed,” said state Rep. Steve Reick (R-Woodstock) in a House committee hearing earlier this year.

Around 7,000 kids in Illinois are in foster care. Another 4,000 are in the “preservation” program trying to keep kids at home. There are 2,800 DCFS employees to manage it all.

The legislature has given DCFS a combined additional $150 million in the past two state budgets to fix this mess. But it is clear this systemic failure It isn’t just about money, and it surely can’t be solved by throwing piles of cash at the problem. It requires a visionary, full on, structural reimagination of how the agency is supposed to work. We have some of the most brilliant minds in this state.

Gov. Pritzker and his administration have shown they don’t have all the answers, so it’s time to engage brilliant thinkers and leaders in education and social services and show some real idealistic leadership he promised us all in 2018.

Some of the answers may be easy and some of them may be far more complicated than I can write in these pages. It may be more caseworkers, it may be more streamlined services, it may be more support to encourage good foster families to get into the system. Bring the experts to the table now.

These kids deserve better, Governor. I know you know it. Now it’s time to do something about it.

• Patrick Pfingsten is a former journalist and Republican strategist who writes The Illinoize statewide political newsletter. Read more at www.theillinoize.com or contact him at patrick@theillinoize.com.

Patrick Pfingsten

Patrick Pfingsten

Patrick Pfingsten is a former award-winning journalist and Republican strategist who writes The Illinoize statewide political newsletter.