Illinois House GOP slams DCFS, calls for hearing after agency director held in contempt in three cases

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Illinois Republican legislators slammed the state’s child welfare agency for a “cycle of failure” after its director was held in contempt of court for allegedly failing to provide adequate housing for minors in three recent cases.

The House GOP has called for a hearing into deficiencies with the state’s Department of Children and Family Services and how its director, Marc Smith, plans to address them. It was unclear whether the GOP’s request will be granted by the Democratic majority.

Smith, tapped by Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker to lead the agency in 2019, was held in contempt of court by a Cook County Juvenile Court judge for two different cases in which children were deemed to have been sheltered inadequately.

In each case, Smith was fined $1,000 a day until his agency found adequate housing for the two minors, a 9-year-old girl in one case and a 13-year-old boy in the other.

In the case of the 9-year-old, DCFS had kept her in a locked psychiatric hospital since June, according to Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert, whose office is involved in the cases. Previously, the girl had been physically and sexually abused, Golbert said Friday.

The 13-year-old boy had been staying at a “temporary shelter” in Mount Vernon, a southern Illinois town about 280 miles from Chicago, Golbert said. Before that, he said, the boy was staying in a utility closet in an office.

On Thursday, DCFS said that the two minors finally were placed in adequate housing but at the same time, a judge held Smith in contempt again for failing to find adequate housing for another youth who had been staying in a psychiatric hospital, according to Golbert.

DCFS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said the agency is appealing the contempt ruling in the third case. And in a statement, he said the agency is “dedicated to keeping children safe and strengthening families.”

“We are working aggressively addressing the decadeslong 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,” McCaffrey said.

House Republicans sounded off about the cases on Thursday at a Zoom-based news conference.

The disclosure of the cases that led to the contempt order comes after DCFS case worker Deidre Silas, 36, was fatally stabbed earlier this month while checking on a report of a child in danger outside of Springfield.

State Rep. Steven Reick, a Harvard Republican, said Pritzker has been “missing in action” on the issue.

“This is a man who’s not afraid to run in front of a camera every chance he gets. But on this one he has been totally silent. Governor, it’s time to speak out on this issue,” Reick said Thursday.

State Rep. Tony McCombie, a Savanna Republican, echoed Reick’s concerns.

“This is not a partisan issue,” she said of Pritzker and the Democrats. “Don’t make it one.”

In a statement, state Rep. Camille Lilly, a Chicago Democrat who heads the committee that oversees DCFS’ funding, said the agency’s failures are something that legislators on both sides of the aisles have been working to address for years. But she said it’s crucial that “the conversation needs to be focused on holistic, long-term solutions.”

“I am wholeheartedly asking my colleagues to put down the talking points and hit pause on the press conferences so we can do this important work together,” Lilly said. “That’s what our children and the rest of our state deserve.”

jgorner@chicagotribune.com

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