DCFS Director Marc Smith announced Wednesday that he is resigning as director of the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services. Credit: Illinois Answers file photo

The head of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is resigning as leader of the long-embattled child welfare agency, a week after a state audit outlined major failures by the department in recent years.

Marc D. Smith made the announcement Wednesday in a virtual all-staff town hall. He said his last day will be Dec. 31.

“This has been the most important thing that I’ve ever done and my great honor to be in this role as director of DCFS,” Smith told staff. “I couldn’t be more proud of the work that we’ve done.”

Smith worked his way up the ranks of the agency and became a private sector executive before he was appointed to the role by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2019 and confirmed by the Illinois Senate in 2021.

An Illinois Answers Project investigation last year found Smith presided over an agency inundated by crises, including rising abuse and neglect complaints, growing vacancy rates among investigators, and a litany of children who died in the agency’s care.

The investigation found intensifying problems were 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.

DCFS also came under criticism last year after an Illinois Answers’ investigation revealed that Illinois’ top Medicaid contractor routinely failed to deliver critical medical services to children in the state’s foster care system. 

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Smith “leaves a mixed legacy,” Charles Golbert, the Cook County public guardian, told the Illinois Answers Project on Wednesday. 

“On the one hand, in serving for four and a half years, Smith brought much needed consistency in leadership after DCFS rotated through 13 different directors and acting directors over the prior 10 years,” Golbert said in a statement.

People at all levels of the agency stepped up during the COVID-19 pandemic, Golbert said, and resources allocated to the agency increased substantially under Smith’s administration.

“On the other hand … Smith failed to substantially expand desperately needed placement capacity,” Golbert said. “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. This is now happening to hundreds of children every year.”

The governor’s office said in a statement that, under Smith, DCFS created a capital program investing in youth service providers and sought federal opportunities for funding, grew the agency budget, and “increased transparency and accountability to the public.”

“Under Smith’s direction, DCFS also prioritized technology upgrades to a 30-year-old infrastructure enabling new operational efficiencies, grew funding for youth scholarships, and increased staffing to the highest levels the agency has seen in 15 years,” the statement from the governor’s office said.

Read More: IL DCFS Chief Under Fire After BGA Finds Hundreds of Foster Children Being Held Improperly

The news comes after the state Auditor General last week released its report on how the agency fared over the two years ending in June 2022. The audit found 33 major failures by the department – even more than in the previous review cycle.

Among the failures, the audit found DCFS takes days or weeks to inform local law enforcement  and county prosecutors of serious incidents involving children, such as reports alleging the death of a child, serious injury, torture, malnutrition or sexual abuse.

While DCFS is required to notify local officials within 24 hours of such reports, the department failed to do so in 20% of cases reviewed, according to the audit. Instead, DCFS notified local authorities five to 43 days late. That’s been the case since 2012, according to the audit.

In January, the Cook County public guardian filed a federal lawsuit alleging the department “willfully and wrongly” incarcerated hundreds of children in its care. The suit claims the department knowingly imprisoned kids despite court orders for their release, depriving the children of mental health resources, schooling and access to loved ones.

Golbert noted Smith holds the “dubious distinction” of being the only director in DCFS’s history to be held in contempt of court a dozen times for failing to place children appropriately in violation of court orders.

“While the contempt findings were eventually either purged or reversed on appeal, they evidence the frustration of the parties in juvenile court, and apparently of the judges, in DCFS’ inability to find needed placements for its children,” Golbert said.

Smith said he decided to remain at the agency for several months to support the department’s transition to new leadership.

“It’s so rare that a director of DCFS or any big organization gets to make a decision to leave when it’s best for them,” Smith told staff. “And I’m honored that the governor’s office understood that and has been so supportive of me.”

The governor’s office on Wednesday also announced Theresa Eagleson, director of the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, and Paula Basta, director of the Illinois Department on Aging, will be stepping down at the end of the year.

“Theresa, Paula and Marc reflect the best of state government — people who have sacrificed to help millions of constituents through their dedication to service,” Pritzker said in a statement.

The governor’s office said Pritzker has appointed Lizzy Whitehorn, who serves as first assistant deputy governor for Health and Human Services, to serve as director of HFS beginning Jan. 1, 2024, pending confirmation by the Illinois Senate.

Smith and Eagleson drew scrutiny last year after an investigation by the Illinois Answers Project revealed an insurance giant paid nearly $370 million to improve health care for state wards that routinely fell short in providing basic care. At the time, Smith and Eagleson ran the departments overseeing the program.

More: Feds Probing Massive State Contract that Failed Foster Kids with Inadequate Health Care

Grace Hauck is an embedded investigative reporter collaborating with local newsrooms across the state. Before joining Illinois Answers, she worked for USA TODAY in Chicago in various roles, including breaking news, enterprise and criminal justice reporting. She grew up in New Jersey and studied political science and visual art at the University of Chicago.