One of the vital roles of government is to protect its residents, especially vulnerable children in state care. For a variety of reasons, Illinois children end up in the system, because of abuse from their parents or guardians, death of parents or guardians, homelessness, neglect, and even outright abandonment. As a society, we give up part of our income to the government to establish a social safety net to protect these children and provide them with vital services.
That is supposed to be the main purpose of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). But the agency charged with caring for kids has continually fallen short in big ways. While Governor Pritzker points a finger at previous administrations for past failures, one thing is certain, the ball is now squarely in his court. And, children are dying on his watch. The latest victim of the state’s appalling failure to protect vulnerable children is 19-month old Sophia Davis. Sophia was beaten to death allegedly by her father’s girlfriend – just one month after a DCFS investigator determined a previous report of child abuse against the girlfriend was “unfounded.” Sophia is not the only child to be failed by DCFS. In the last three months alone, two other children, Damari Perry and Zaraz Walker were killed, after reports were made to DCFS. Illinois Inspectors General throughout the years have outlined the same internal issues at DCFS: Children killed after the agency left them with abusive parents or their partners, children sleeping on the floors in DCFS offices, and children kept beyond medical necessity in psychiatric hospitals. In 2021 alone, 356 children in DCFS care were hospitalized longer than necessary. In the last decade, 1122 children died either after DCFS intervention or in the direct care of DCFS. A House committee hearing earlier this year revealed that DCFS is not working with the Illinois State Police on de-escalation tactics. That same Committee hearing revealed the agency is training its caseworkers virtually and has not resumed its use of simulation labs to train caseworkers how to handle potentially violent situations in in-person settings. Hiring at the agency is also a major issue, with 84 caseworker positions going unfilled from January 2020 to December 2021. These cascading failures at DCFS are unacceptable and unforgivable. Who’s at fault? DCFS Director Marc Smith has been held in contempt six times so far this year for failing to put children under the state’s care in proper placements. Smith has held the position for three years, and yes, he is still Director. Marc Smith is not the only leader to fall short at DCFS, many have preceded him. Governor Pritzker is not the only governor to fall short in protecting our children, but he made big promises to do big things if he ever ascended to the big chair. The ongoing crisis at DCFS demands Gov. Pritzker step up to meet this moment, and fulfill the big promises he made. The blame game won’t work when children are languishing in hospitals, dying in state care, and being repeatedly abused by their parents or guardians before, during, and after intervention with DCFS. Even after budget increases, DCFS continues to flounder and there are no reforms in sight. More to the point, it appears there is no political will to change the status quo. Doing the same thing over and over again won’t affect the changes needed to keep children in the care of the state safe. Blaming others certainly does nothing to change the unacceptable dynamic. Illinois children are depending on Governor Pritzker to come through on his promises. Governor Pritzker must fix DCFS, demand accountability of his failing appointed Director, and fulfill his promise to keep vulnerable children safe.