(The Center Square) – With bipartisan support to enhance penalties for crimes against child welfare workers, Republicans continue the chorus of demanding immediate hearings into other issues at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
Least of these in the troubled saga of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is Director Marc Smith recently being found in contempt of court for how the department is treating two children that were kept in psychiatric care despite being approved to be with families.
The Cook County Public Guardian said that’s happened to 350 children in the past year for an average of 55 days.
“One such youth, who is 17 years old, wanted to talk with [a reporter] about his experiences locked up for 67 days after he was cleared for discharge, but DCFS attempted to impede the interview,” the guardian said on its Facebook page. “Our office filed an emergency motion in Juvenile Court, and litigated a two-day hearing, winning an emergency order requiring that DCFS not further obstruct the youth’s First Amendment rights to share his story.”
DCFS has for years been in turmoil. That has included lawsuits, consent decrees, deaths of youth in DCFS care and other issues.
From 2010 to March, more than 1,120 children who had contact with DCFS have died, said state Rep. Tom Weber, R-Lake Villa.
“If that’s not a crisis, I don’t know what is,” he said.
He joined state Rep. Steven Reick, R-Woodstock, and state Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, for a news conference on the issue Thursday. McCombie said enough is enough.
“Gov. [J.B.] Pritzker, wake up and break your silence,” McCombie said. “This is not a partisan issue. Don’t make it one. And every day that we don’t get a response is every day as Illinoisans we should hold the majority party in contempt.”
“These professionals do everything in their power to protect children, so it’s time for the legal system to treat them like the first responders they are,” Pritzker said in a statement last week.
The governor’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment regarding the GOP’s concerns on Thursday.
Weber said more money for the agency won’t solve the problems.
“This is something that can only be addressed by an investigation into the failed policies of DCFS and its failed leadership,” he said.
Reick said the agency already gets $1 billion a year. He also said systemic changes are needed. He suggests the agency be a case manager and leave investigations to local officials.
“That would be my suggestion, but the fact remains that I am just one legislator of 118 and this is a discussion that all 118 of us have to have,” Reick said.
Messages to the Democratic leadership were not immediately returned.
Thursday afternoon, state Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, issued the following statement:
“It is unfortunate to see the concerning trend of workers and children being harmed while under DCFS’s care,” Hunter said. “DCFS must create safer spaces for our state’s most vulnerable residents and the workers that serve them. I plan to introduce a bill to help minimize the harms workers and children face.”
Details on the measure were not immediately made available.
State Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Lake Forest, issued this statement after publication:
“Immediately following the tragic on-the-job stabbing of DCFS worker Deidre Silas, I spoke with Director Marc Smith’s office and requested a meeting about DCFS staff safety,” Morrison said. “He has agreed to participate in a Senate Health Committee Subject Matter hearing at Feb. 3 at 8:30 a.m. regarding the topic.”
Later in the day, state Rep. Camille Lilly, D-Oak Park, said the issues “are not new and something legislators on both sides of the aisle have been working to address for years.”
“It is crucial that we have the chance to ask questions about the failures within the agency, but the conversation needs to be focused on holistic, long-term solutions,” Lilly said. “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. That’s what our children and the rest of our state deserve.”