Illinois DCFS struggles to fix decades of systemic issues

The department’s budget is growing as new leadership is being recruited. Advocates hope those changes signal more improvements to come.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, 6201 S. Emerald Dr., on May 13, 2019. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, 6201 S. Emerald Dr., on May 13, 2019. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

Illinois DCFS struggles to fix decades of systemic issues

The department’s budget is growing as new leadership is being recruited. Advocates hope those changes signal more improvements to come.

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In July 2022, Marc Smith, the beleaguered director of the state’s Department of Children and Family Services, faced contempt of court charges for the twelfth time since the beginning of that year. The latest rebuke involved a 15-year-old girl who languished in a psychiatric hospital for more than six months, waiting to be placed in a foster home.

Charles Golbert, a Cook County Public Guardian and partner to DCFS, was beside himself — and fired off yet another angry press release, exasperated by what he viewed as a continuing pattern of neglect.

“It’s hard to think of a better way to say to a child ‘you don’t matter,’ than forcing the child to languish for months and months on end in a locked psychiatric hospital, temporary shelter, or shuffled around among dozens of inappropriate settings including offices because your guardian has nowhere to place you,” Golbert wrote.

The case was emblematic of the major issue facing the department responsible for caring for more than 20,000 displaced youth annually: Illinois faces a chronic shortage of specialized foster care settings to meet their needs, effectively throttling the movement of children through the system and into permanent homes.

Now, Smith is on his way out.

He announced his resignation this past October after four years. When Smith leaves office on Dec. 31, he’ll do so as the longest serving DCFS director in more than a decade. He oversaw budget increases during each year he was in charge after funding had fallen consistently from 2009 through 2018. Advocates hope his replacement — and the continued restoration of the agency’s budget — will lead to brighter outcomes for children across the state.

Outgoing Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Director Marc Smith
Outgoing Illinois Deparment of Children and Family Services Director Marc Smith during a press conference on May 13, 2019. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

A history of neglect

Issues with DCFS span decades. The ACLU of Illinois filed suit in 1988 alleging the department wasn’t providing adequate services for kids in its care. That suit was settled, leading to a federal consent decree in December 1991. The decree sought to ensure children in care of the state are placed in the most family-like setting possible and get access to necessary medical attention.

The decree ordered changes to be completed and improvements made by July 1994 — but to this day, DCFS has never fully complied. “It’s an embarrassment for the state of Illinois that we are not in constitutional compliance in providing care for these vulnerable children,” said State Sen. John Curran, R-Downers Grove, the Senate’s minority leader during a legislative hearing this year.

Faced with increasing pressure to comply with the decree, a federal court in 2015 appointed an expert panel to review the problems. The panel made six recommendations called “overarching outcome measures” that, when addressed together, it said would systematically change DCFS.

The recommendations pay attention to metrics, such as how often a child is mistreated while they’re under DCFS care or how likely it is for a child to be placed permanently within a year of entering foster care.

Despite the intervention, DCFS continued to struggle. The department issues several court-ordered reports a year to track its progress on achieving these measures. The most recent one found that only 15% of children who entered DCFS between May 2022 and April 2023 found permanent placement within that year — compared to 43% nationally.

Children who in May 2022 had been in foster care for more than a year, fared slightly better, with 23% finding a permanent home between May and April 2023. The national average is 46%.

DCFS falls below the national average in five of the six categories the department is required to track.

The agency lays much of the blame for the shortcomings on its budget, saying it has struggled for years to recover what was lost during the state’s budget impasse: Some 500 residential beds and roughly 2,300 foster homes were lost between 2015 and 2019. The state also lost about 71% of its shelter capacity for kids in DCFS care. “The short answer is that most of the states are doing most of this much better than us,” said Golbert in an email.

But there are bright spots.

Expanding therapeutic foster care

Ruth Jajko is the chief operating officer of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, which entered into a pilot program with the state in 2016 to provide therapeutic foster care.

The program stipulates that at least one parent should be home at all times and they must be willing to accept people going in and out of their home throughout the week. Jajko said a team assigned to ten children at a time includes a skills coach, individual therapist, family therapist, a case manager and a resource person.

“The team based approach is one of the things that I think is most exciting about therapeutic foster care. It does help the staff not feel like everything is just falling on one person’s shoulders,” Jajko said.

Since its launch, 60 children have successfully completed LSSI’s program and have either returned home or moved into a more traditional residential setting. Twenty-five kids are in the program right now.

Three new programs will be up and running by the spring. DCFS hasn’t officially announced where they’ll be located or who will oversee them, but DCFS says they’ll collectively serve around 100 young people per year aged 8 to 21.

Programming like this is expensive, however, and child welfare organizations face the same staffing challenges as other industries.

“There was such a disparity between the private sector organizations doing child welfare, their salaries, and the salaries that DCFS staff were paid. And now DCFS has made a very big commitment to help close that gap,” she said.

Increased funding and staffing

In addition to expanding programs like Jajko’s therapeutic foster care, DCFS leaders hope an increased budget will increase their ability to hire.

Lawmakers have approved budgets in each of the past five years that have increased DCFS’s funding. The budget approved for this year is nearly double what it was five years ago — from $1.18 billion in fiscal year 2019 to just over $2 billion for fiscal year 2024. So far, much of that money is going toward staffing: While DCFS hasn’t yet hired as many people as it wants, significant progress has been made, according to Heather Tarczan, DCFS’s director of communications.

“Our staffing is the highest in 15 years and we are incredibly proud of our recruitment efforts,” Tarczan said. “In the last five years staffing increased from a total headcount of 2,665 to [3,411]; the focus is to hire caseworkers and case managers — the frontline workers who are responding to the needs of thousands of Illinois children and families annually.”

About 80% of DCFS’s total workforce is composed of those frontline workers according to Jassen Strokosch, the agency’s chief of staff. That’s where most of the hiring has happened, but they’re also tackling leadership positions like the long vacant consent decree administrator. That person’s sole job is to act as a liaison between the agency, courts and organizations involved with the decree to ensure DCFS is in compliance.

The search for a new director

Childcare advocates that work closely with DCFS hope the new director continues moving the agency in the right direction.

“I’m hoping that they will be open to innovation,” Jajko said. “We’re trying to do some innovation around taking what we’ve learned in therapeutic foster care and pulling it over to reach a broader section of youth and kids and families. And we hope that kind of innovation will still be something that a director of DCFS will be interested in.” Smith departs at the end of the year, but the state hasn’t put a timetable on hiring his replacement. A national search is underway.

Alex Degman is an Illinois statehouse reporter for WBEZ.