Embattled Illinois DCFS Director Marc Smith resigns


SPRINGFIELD — The resignation of the head of Illinois’ child welfare agency leaves Gov. J.B. Pritzker with the task of finding someone to run a troubled department that has been a regular target of criticism by the governor’s detractors as well as some of his fellow Democrats throughout his 4 ½ years in office.

Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Director Marc Smith’s announcement Wednesday that his last day in the post would be Dec. 31 came a little more than a week after the state’s auditor general issued a scathing report on the agency that cited numerous problems including significant delays in reporting abuse and neglect to local prosecutors, other state agencies and school officials.

Smith, appointed by Pritzker three months after he began his first term in office, has faced strong criticism from legislative Republicans and child welfare advocates who said the agency remained a mess under his direction. Nonetheless, Smith lasted longer than many of his predecessors at the problem-plagued agency, which has had 15 directors in 20 years.

“Finding someone to take on this job, it’s probably one of the most difficult jobs to recruit for,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said. “Candidates see the press coverage. They see how hard the work is, and they see the challenges involved.”

Also leaving Pritzker’s administration at year’s end is Theresa Eagleson, who heads the Department of Healthcare and Family Services. The agency was at the center of disputes this past spring over the distribution of a half-billion dollars in state-subsidized health care for immigrants. Pritzker tapped Lizzy Whitehorn, first assistant deputy governor for the Department of Health and Human Services, as Eagleson’s replacement, pending Illinois Senate confirmation.

Smith announced his resignation in a video town hall to staffers, calling DCFS “the premier child welfare agency in the country, no doubt” and offered words of encouragement to its employees.

“We are running and working at the highest level I believe that this agency has ever worked at,” he said. “Do not let anybody take that away from you because I’m sure as hell not letting them take it away from me.”

Abudayyeh said the governor’s office will conduct a national search for Smith’s replacement, and that among the qualities an ideal candidate should have is experience working under a bureaucracy and running a large child welfare organization either in the public or private sectors.

Criticism of Smith crescendoed last year when he was held in contempt of court a number of times last year for violating court orders by failing to find children appropriate placements in a timely manner, though those orders were later vacated.

All or most of the court actions that led to the orders were brought by Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert, who on Wednesday said Smith leaves “a mixed legacy” after 4 ½ years.

Golbert gave Smith credit for bringing “much needed consistency in leadership” following a decadelong revolving door of agency director and for navigating DCFS through the COVID-19 pandemic.

DCFS acting Director Marc Smith answers questions during a presentation on the findings of a six-week review that looked at the agency's intact family services, during a presentation for reporters at DCFS office in Chicago on May 13, 2019.

But Golbert criticized Smith for failing to “substantially expand desperately needed placement capacity” despite an increase in state resources.

“As a result, under Smith’s watch, we started to see children sleeping on the hard, cold floors of offices instead of in a warm, comfortable bed in an appropriate placement for the first time since the 1990s,” Golbert said.

Golbert also said dozens of children in DCFS care “remain incarcerated in juvenile jails for weeks and months after a judge has ordered them released to their guardian because DCFS has nowhere to place them.”

“This causes profound, irreversible damage to children and must be addressed with a sense of urgency,” Golbert said.

The auditor general’s report on DCFS said the agency did not promptly report abuse and neglect to law enforcement. For example, in more than a quarter of cases reviewed, the agency didn’t report to local prosecutors immediately when testing showed newborns had drugs in their systems, with the reporting delayed as long as 2 ½ years, according to the report, which covered a two-year period ending June 30, 2022.

Similarly, in 1 in 5 cases reviewed, DCFS failed to notify local police and prosecutors of reports alleging the death, serious injury, torture, malnutrition or sexual abuse of a child within the required 24-hour window, with delays lasting up to 43 days, the audit found.

DCFS also failed to report to children’s schools within the required 10 days of completing an investigation alleging physical or sexual abuse in all the cases reviewed, with some delays also lasting more than two years, the watchdog report said.

House Republican leader Tony McCombie, who has worked with Democratic lawmakers on efforts to ensure the safety of DCFS workers, said Wednesday that “DCFS is undeniably a dysfunctional agency in our state, and immediate change is critically necessary.”

“As children in our care and agency workers continue to be harmed or worse, the House Republican caucus will strongly advocate for common sense proposals to structurally reform the functions of the agency,” said McCombie, of Savanna. “It is our duty to protect children in state’s care.”

DCFS for more than three decades has operated under federal court oversight stemming from litigation filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. The department made slow but steady progress in the 1990s, but then entered an era of massive turnover and controversy.

“It is critical that the department keep its focus on meeting its commitments under the consent decree — including recent implementation plans,” Heidi Dalenberg, interim legal director for the ACLU of Illinois, said Wednesday. “Children under their care need and deserve the individualized services and care that will allow them to … be safe.”

Smith took over an agency that faced a shortage of resources after the state was saddled with debt and other financial woes following a two-year budget impasse under Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Smith and DCFS had to deal with the fallout from the death of AJ Freund at the hands of his mother in 2019, at about the same time Smith took office. Two former DCFS investigators were charged with endangering the life or health of a child and reckless conduct in that case.

The agency also dealt with a number of fatal child abuse cases involving kids whose families had been investigated previously by DCFS, including those of 6-year-old Damari Perry of North Chicago; 1-year-old Sophia Faye Davis of Sangamon County; 7-month-old Zaraz Walker of Bloomington; 3-year-old Tamsin Miracle Sauer of Nelson; and 8-year-old Navin Jones of Peoria.

The agency lost one of its workers in January 2022 when child protection specialist Deidre Silas was stabbed to death while responding to a call about potentially endangered children at a home in Thayer, south of Springfield.

Problems at the agency have persisted, even as its budget has grown each year under Pritzker, with another $75 million bump this year aimed at hiring another 192 workers, among other goals.

During his reelection bid last year, Pritzker defended Smith and noted the revolving door in DCFS leadership.

“That’s just a way of scapegoating somebody for problems that actually needed to be fixed within the agency,” Pritzker said about a month before easily winning a second term.

Smith took over DCFS from interim Director Debra Dyer-Webster, the agency’s sixth leader in four years. In January 2015, just before Rauner took office, acting Director Bobbie Gregg resigned in the wake of a Chicago Tribune investigation that revealed sexual abuse of children in state care and other problems at taxpayer-funded treatment centers.

Rauner named George Sheldon, a former head of Florida’s child welfare agency, to head DCFS, but he resigned in June 2017 amid an ethics probe. At the time of Sheldon’s resignation, the agency also was facing scrutiny over the April 2017 death of Semaj Crosby, a 17-month-old Joliet Township girl whose household had been the subject of multiple DCFS investigations over two years.

Rauner’s next choice, Beverly “BJ” Walker, was never confirmed by the state Senate. Rauner used a procedural maneuver to keep her in the post through the end of his term. Walker resigned in February 2019, just after Pritzker started his first term.

Smith was a relatively unknown candidate when Pritzker selected him to lead DCFS in 2019 after a national search that the billionaire governor paid for out of his own pocket.

At the time, Smith was executive vice president of foster care and intact services at Olympia Fields-based Aunt Martha’s Health & Wellness, which remains a major contractor for DCFS and other state agencies.

A licensed social worker, Smith was a public service administrator for DCFS from 1993 to 2000. At Aunt Martha’s, a nonprofit where he began working in 2010, Smith oversaw the integration of health care services with other services for children in the organization’s care.

Unlike his immediate predecessors, Smith didn’t have experience leading a large state agency and was little-known to state lawmakers and longtime child welfare advocates.

That lack of managerial experience was evident throughout his tenure at DCFS, said state Rep. Fred Crespo, a Hoffman Estates Democrat who as chairman of the Legislative Audit Commission has been critical of the agency’s response to problems uncovered in routine reviews of its operations.

“When you have an agency, such as that one, that is so large, you need someone at the helm who has two skill sets,” Crespo said. “No. 1, understanding the core job, and I think Director Smith did that.

“But you also need a good manager, and I question whether he really was strong in regards to having that skill set and managing an agency that large.”

Smith received an 8% raise in January through legislation passed by the lame-duck legislature that gave increases to statewide elected officials, agency heads and lawmakers, and another 5% hike in July, boosting his salary to $210,000 per year.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisles agreed that problems at DCFS go deeper than Smith’s leadership.

Republican state Sens. Steve McClure of Springfield and Sally Turner, of Beason issued a joint statement saying that “We hope the governor takes this opportunity to finally fix the issues that plague DCFS and have led to heartbreaking stories of children waiting months for placements, or those who tragically have lost their lives.

“Governor Pritzker needs to undertake a comprehensive review of agency operations, prioritizing solutions that protect children who cannot protect themselves.”

“I will be following the transition really closely,” said state Sen. Julie Morrison, a Lake Forest Democrat who has been critical of DCFS as chair of the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee. “I believe that the agency needs to be reorganized as opposed to just having a new director.”

Crespo agreed, saying the governor’s administration needs “to take a deep look and see if they need to re-engineer processes to make sure that they can serve the folks they’re supposed to serve.”

The veteran lawmaker also expressed concern that Smith’s departure comes amid a major shake-up on the governor’s human services team.

Like Smith, Eagleson, head of Healthcare and Family Services, has been with Pritzker since the early days of the administration. The agency was thrust into the spotlight this spring when massive cost overruns in a program it oversees that provides Medicaid-style health benefits for older immigrants who are in the country without legal permission threatened to derail budget negotiations.

During the debate, some immigrant rights advocates and members of the legislature’s Latino Caucus questioned the agency’s cost projections.

After Pritzker struck a deal with lawmakers that provided funds to cover about half the projected cost for the current year, Healthcare and Family Services cut off new sign-ups for younger immigrants and capped enrollment for those 65 and older, among other restrictions. Those decisions have continued to face pushback from advocates and some Democratic lawmakers.

Also leaving the administration at the end of the year is Department on Aging Director Paula Basta.

The departures come after the administration announced last month that Pritzker’s top aide on health and human services, Deputy Gov. Sol Flores, would leave that role Oct. 13, with current Department of Human Services Director Grace Hou taking her place.

“I’m deeply concerned that you have some of the key players leaving all at the same time,” Crespo said.

Petrella reported and Chicago Tribune’s Christy Gutowski contributed from Chicago.




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