Three years after becoming the state’s child welfare chief, Marc Smith presides over an agency inundated by crises — rising abuse and neglect complaints, growing vacancy rates among investigators and a litany of children who died in the agency’s care.

Smith, 53, who worked his way up the ranks of the Department of Children and Family Services and became a private sector executive before his 2019 appointment by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, said three years is not enough time to pass judgment on his administration’s record.

In an interview with the Better Government Association, Smith acknowledged the problems, but rebuffed his many critics and defended his record.

“Three years sounds like a long time. But it is not,” Smith told the BGA.

“A lot of these critics are the same critics who have been a part of this system for years, making the same complaints,” Smith added. “I am willing to take the time and take the hits and take the punishment and take the disrespect because I believe that we are doing the right thing.”

A BGA examination of DCFS under Smith found intensifying problems hampering the most fundamental parts of the agency’s mission: Finding appropriate placements for the youth in its care and ensuring the safety of its investigators.

The BGA obtained court permission to review dozens of confidential juvenile court files, interviewed numerous agency employees, and dug out several years of internal data on child placements and worker caseloads.

The examination found a steady increase in the number of Illinois foster children held for weeks or months after a judge ordered their release from detention centers. In other cases, children as young as two years old were held in offices or shelters and others as young as seven were kept in psychiatric hospitals long after doctors cleared them for release, the BGA found.

Since January 2018, when DCFS started keeping a count of foster childred improperly held in such settings, there have been 2,015 cases, according to its own reports to state lawmakers. 

At the same time, DCFS employees are reeling from the homicides of two colleagues slain while making home visits, and speaking out about a lack of support from management.

“Many times, with those interviews, it’s more of a confrontation. That’s just gotten worse,” said Gabriel Nagy, one of many veteran DCFS workers who spoke to the BGA. “My job is to protect the kids but there are a lot of unforeseen dangers. I don’t know what’s going to protect us.”

Smith said improvements are in the works, but “these aren’t things that happen overnight.”

He said DCFS is working to enhance law enforcement partnerships for home visits, and is starting to see improvements in hotline call response times and in the onboarding of new investigators – efforts that took his administration years of hard work.

But some lawmakers and child advocates say the growing problems signal a systemwide failure.

Inappropriate child placements, shoddy service delivery and employee danger are just a few of the problems intertwined with leadership failures, said Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert.

“If DCFS had the services it needs for the kids, caseworkers could spend their time doing actual casework as opposed to spinning their wheels for resources that don’t exist,” he said. “DCFS would be able to better retain workers.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker contends the agency was gutted through a series of social services cuts from 2015 through 2017 — all amid budget disputes between former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and disgraced former House Speaker Michael Madigan.

State Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Deerfield, who for years has led efforts to improve the agency’s child-safety record, agreed the previous budget cuts took a toll.

“But you know, how … long do we have to wait to reestablish that because the director’s been there for three years,” she said.

“How long is it going to take to actually establish the number of beds, the capacity that we need?” she added. “And where are these community based services?

“This problem was there when he walked in the door. And I know he’s just one person, but I do feel like we’ve appropriated a lot of funding for DCFS. No one has come to me and said, ‘Gosh, if we only had more money, we could fix this.’ I think we’re at the point where it’s more than just dollars. I think it’s direction.”

A spike in abuse and neglect reports

Juvenile court records reviewed by the BGA detail the abuse and abandonment many Illinois children faced before DCFS took protective custody — and in some cases mistreatment that continued even after the agency intervened.

Consider the 15-year-old Chicago girl who as recently as of last year had spent 500 days in a state-contracted residential treatment facility — long after she was “clinically determined by DCFS” for release, court records show.

“What does a judge do when the department basically abuses a child?” juvenile court Judge Patrick Murphy asked at a September hearing for her case.

She was born to a drug-addicted mother and placed immediately in state care.

But her troubling saga with DCFS began when she was 7 years old and agency employees decided to remove her from her great aunt’s custody over an incident one agency-appointed psychiatrist would later suggest was overblown.

According to Murphy’s court order reviewed by the BGA, the aunt allegedly slapped the girl’s hand when she reached for a hot stove, an incident that began a years-long odyssey including more than 20 foster homes, shelters and residential treatment centers.

“I believe that (her) difficulties began with her removal from the home of (the aunt),” the DCFS-retained psychiatrist wrote in a 12-page report to the court. “There may have been compelling factors for her removal but I did not see them in the records available to me. The removal seemed to be due to a minor incident of corporal punishment.”

She is just one of the hundreds of Illinois foster children with mental health needs housed inappropriately for weeks or months in county jails, government offices and hospitals because DCFS officials couldn’t find suitable homes for them, the BGA found.

In 2021, 343 foster children — some as young as seven — were housed in psychiatric hospitals after doctors cleared them for release, records show.

That is up from the 309 cases from 2019, the BGA found.

“This is a true crisis,” University of Illinois at Chicago psychiatry professor Dr. Michael Naylor wrote in an October 2021 letter to state officials about the improper placements of foster children with mental health needs.

“This is illegal, a profound civil rights violation, and clinically devastating,” Golbert wrote in a November report to a federal court judge.

Another foster child — a 15-year-old charged with stealing someone’s backpack at a South Side bus stop — was locked in the Cook County juvenile detention center for seven months beyond his release date in 2020, even though judges repeatedly ordered him released, the BGA found.

He was among 73 foster children locked for weeks or months in the Cook County juvenile temporary detention center without pending charges during 2021, according to a BGA analysis of court and DCFS records.

That is an increase from the 49 similar cases in 2019, the BGA found.

“Being in the juvenile detention center makes me feel worthless and depressed,” the teen wrote in a two-page letter to the judge overseeing his case last year.

Another 17-year-old foster child was dropped off at a North Side Chicago shelter in June 2021 before state officials shuttled him to four more temporary facilities during the next 10 weeks. Then, DCFS administrators authorized strapping him down for the five-hour ambulance drive to a new shelter in southern Illinois, records show.

He was also among 167 foster children forced to sleep on air mattresses and cots in shelters, government offices or emergency rooms in 2021 as DCFS searched for placements, records show.

That is up from 154 cases the year before, according to the BGA analysis.

Other official documents obtained confidentially by the BGA suggest the actual numbers of foster children improperly held in detention centers, shelters and hospitals is higher than numbers provided by DCFS. In one instance, after the BGA questioned DCFS’ annual report to the state legislature, the agency amended its report to quadruple the number of youth in detention centers from 16 to 64 in 2020.

“Yes, those numbers have been rising because we have seen an increase in the severity of the needs of children in the state of Illinois,” Smith said of the improper child placements.

He said his agency currently is forced to hold youth in juvenile jails, psychiatric hospitals and shelters because the department lacks safe alternatives.

“Safety is the number one concern of the Department of Children and Family Services,” Smith said. “We do not want to step a child out of a safe environment into a chaotic environment, or into an environment that’s not appropriate. It is better than putting them some place where they’re unsafe.”

Under then-Gov. Rauner, Illinois in 2015 embarked on a deliberate mission to decrease the number of youth in large institutions after a Chicago Tribune investigation showed some facilities were riddled by violence, runaways and sex-trafficking.

Illinois lost an estimated 460 beds in private residential treatment centers for youth since then, and DCFS has struggled to create the hundreds of promised therapeutic foster homes.

As of November, there were only 26 therapeutic foster homes — all run by Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. Data provided by LSSI suggests those foster homes are effective in keeping their wards on track.

DCFS is currently negotiating to add 30 new shelter beds, 28 new residential beds for youth with autism or intellectual disabilities, and 43 new emergency foster beds “in the next few months,” according to a recent department plan.

The plan, authored in May, which begins by blaming “the previous administration’s gutting of the social service sector,” says its goal is to add 112 beds within the next 12 months for state wards who need psychiatric or medically complex care.

“There is no scenario in which every effort, reasonable and possible, is not being made by DCFS, working hard on each individual case, to get those children placed in homes,” Smith said.

“What I challenged our private partners in doing in developing new therapeutic treatment foster care models and submitting those plans to us is to be bold, think about doing something different that can help,” Smith said. “If it doesn’t work, we will help you dust off and then do something new.”

The BGA could find only a handful of states that reported similar problems with unlicensed settings in recent years. Other states where the problems have been reported include Texas, Massachusetts, Oregon and Idaho, according to national experts and news reports.

No federal data compares the scope and severity of such improper placements of foster children state-by-state, said Naomi Schaefer Riley, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute whose research focuses on child welfare. “The federal government is not forcing states to report that number,” Riley said.

For now, the backlog in placements for foster children with mental health needs ripples through Illinois’ entire child welfare system, Golbert wrote in a November 2021 court filing.

When one youth is held beyond medical necessity in a psychiatric hospital, that bed is taken from another child who may desperately need psychiatric care. “The entire system backs up,” Golbert wrote. “This impacts all of DCFS’ children.”

The workforce crisis

Multiple DCFS child protective workers told the BGA they still grapple with the fatal 2017 beating of child protective investigator Pam Knight and the January 2022 stabbing death of DCFS investigator Deidre Silas.

The two attacks illustrate long standing concerns with safety for the workers who visit homes to investigate child mistreatment allegations, veteran workers said.

“The issue is six months from now will people still remember the tragic death of our sister?” said Arnold Black, a child protection specialist and supervisor for the department’s Urbana office. “Based on what happened with Pam Knight, I think the fear is that this will go back to the back burner.”

Rising Abuse and Neglect Reports, Growing Investigator Vacancies

In the 12 months before March 2022, investigations into child abuse and neglect reports rose statewide to an average of 7,726 open cases, an 18% increase from the 6,535 such cases open the year before. At the same time, the Department of Children and Family Services saw its vacancy rate among protective workers growing from 9% to 21%.

Source: DCFS court filing from March 2022

After Silas’ death some workers expressed “their concerns (and) fear” prompting Black to go out into the field to assist members of his team. The screaming of one aggressive mother prompted one of two interventions, Black told the BGA.

Bill McCaffrey, a DCFS spokesman, said agency workers have endured only 20 threats or assaults in the five years ending in January, during which they made 2.5 million home visits.

Not true, says the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which represents about 2,800 agency employees. The union reports 20 incidents of threat or assault against DCFS workers in the first quarter of 2021 alone, and 29 more throughout the rest of the year.

McCaffrey said the union’s figures reflect a broader range of threats and violence outside of home visits, including at hospitals, offices, residential facilities or through email or text. Not all warrant notifying law enforcement, McCaffrey said.

Marci Malnar, a 28-year veteran of the department, recalled being summoned to a home in the middle of the night and hearing a gun go off nearby after knocking on the door.

The deputy sheriff escorting her on that visit ran off after hearing the shots, leaving Malnar in the dark with nothing more than a cell phone flashlight to get back to her car, she told the BGA.

On another visit, Malnar said a grandmother was asked to unload the bullets from a shotgun kept by her door. She fired until it was empty.

And on yet another visit, a father shot a handgun into the grass as a member of Malnar’s team approached.

A second-generation DCFS investigator, Gabriel Nagy, recounted the threats he’s heard.

“It’s a unique situation with my dad and I both being in investigations,” Nagy told the BGA. “Several years ago my dad had taken some children from a family, and that father made a threat to my dad, that ‘you’ve taken my children away, I might just take yours away.”

After Silas’ death, the union proposed an array of protective initiatives, some of which dated back to the killing of Knight. On that list were requests for self defense classes; protective gear like bullet- or stab-proof vests; metal detectors in DCFS offices as well as an annual review of field safety procedures, among other measures.

The legislature considered numerous initiatives including: Self defense training; pairing investigators with plain-clothed, retired police officers; and increasing the safety training for employees.

The General Assembly sent only one measure related to employee safety to the governor, a bill that would allow workers to carry pepper spray.

“That’s the only thing we did. We have not gone nearly far enough,” said Sen. Julie Morrison, who recently chaired a legislative task force on DCFS employee safety.

“Anybody who takes on the job as Director of the Department of Children and Family Services is in an impossible situation,” said state Rep. Steven Reick, R-Woodstock.

“I don’t think anybody could walk into that situation and do the kind of job that’s needed” given the cratered morale within the department, Reick said.

“I do, however, strongly resent the idea that the default answer to every question that comes up either to the Governor or to Marc Smith is … that Bruce Rauner gutted the agency,” Reick added. “J.B. Pritzker has had three and a half years of promising that he’s going to do something and at this point, nothing has been done.”

(Ted Schurter/The State Journal-Register)

Without tangible improvements, Morrison said, agency workers “don’t have the resources that they need to stay safe … I could never recommend a family member or friend to go into this job. I could never do it. I think it’s too dangerous.”

Since 2015, some 500 child protection staff have left the department, DCFS said in one court filing from late March. The COVID-19 pandemic created “a nationwide hiring crisis that has impacted the child welfare sector acutely.”

In that court filing DCFS acknowledged it wasn’t hiring new workers fast enough to keep up with investigations and rising numbers of children in state care.

Statewide, the agency’s job vacancy rate soared to over 21% this March from less than 9% in March of last year, court records show. In 2021, the agency employed nearly 3,000.

Of those who remain, nearly 35% are managing caseloads that exceed limits set by a 1991 federal consent decree, according to April figures from the union that represents agency employees.

“We have hired aggressively across the state,” Smith said. “Not only within DCFS but within our private partners, we have raised salaries, and it is working. We see consistently that we have high numbers of people who want to join our business. … This is good work, this is soul-fulfilling work, and this is work that people are motivated to do.”

Smith said DCFS is taking steps to protect workers by forging partnerships with local law enforcement agencies to pair officers with agency investigators on high-risk visits.

Investigators and caseworkers also have access to emergency safety features installed on their state-issued phones, the department said in a recent court filing.

DCFS also raised its recruitment staff from two to seven people, and cut the time to onboard new recruits from six months to two. It added recruitment efforts at the Chicago Auto Show and the Illinois State Fair, and brought on retired workers under 75-day contracts.

And the department has been conducting “blitzes” at field offices, in which volunteer staff from other sites sweep in to complete investigations and paperwork, according to court records filed by DCFS.

A new office close to home

One of Smith’s first acts upon taking the helm of DCFS three years ago was to work from a new executive office in an agency field facility in a Joliet shopping mall near his suburban home.

Among some agency workers Smith picked up a reputation for avoiding the public spotlight of the Chicago and Springfield offices.

Smith said the move was part of his career-long mission to be “as close to the ground of the work as possible.”

“Me having an office in Joliet keeps me connected to investigators, child welfare specialists, to moms to dads and to children every day, because I’m present with them,” Smith told the BGA.

“It helps to think about why it’s so important for us to be thoughtful and take our time to make the changes that need to be made, not be swayed by critics who are not thoughtful about this work.”

David Jackson was a senior investigative reporter at the Illinois Answers Project from 2020 to 2022.

Rachel Hinton was an investigative enterprise reporter at the Illinois Answers Project from 2022 to 2023.