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Pritzker names new director for Illinois’ troubled child welfare agency

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(The Center Square) – Gov. J.B. Pritzker has named a new director for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services who will take over running the troubled agency. The announcement comes on the heels of an inspector general report highlighting problems within the agency, including fraud and child death investigations.

Heidi Mueller, who served as director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, will replace DCFS Director Marc Smith.

“The work Director Mueller has done at the Department of Juvenile Justice over the last several years has been transformative for the juvenile justice system in Illinois, and I am thrilled that she will bring her unique experience and talents to DCFS,” Pritzker said. “Heidi’s care and compassion for the most at-risk young people in our state and her exceptional leadership are hallmarks of her career, and I know that her passion and expertise will be a significant asset as we continue to improve our state’s child welfare system.”

Smith was to retire Dec. 31, but will stay on through the rest of the month. He has been in the position since 2019 and has been held in contempt of court several times for issues regarding the late placement of children. Smith announced his resignation in October after an Auditor General report showed ongoing issues.

A report last week by the Office of Inspector General highlights issues within the agency during 2023. The report found 768 complaints, and 612 requests to investigate. It lists 89 recommendations for the agency to meet that include further training for staff.

For fiscal year 2023, “the OIG issued 13 recommendations for disciplinary action, including 4 recommendations for discharge, in response to substantiated allegations of employee misconduct,” the report said. In addition, “the OIG assisted the Illinois State Police and the FBI leading to the indictment of a Department employee and 14 other persons on federal charges for allegedly participating in a scheme to fraudulently obtain $3.2 million of state funds intended for childcare services.”

The report also provides insight into 160 child deaths reviewed by the OIG.

“Of the 59 deaths investigated by the Department for death by abuse or neglect, 14 of the deaths were ruled homicide in manner, 12 had an undetermined manner, 15 had a manner of accident, 13 had a manner of natural, and one had a manner of suicide. Autopsy results have not been released for four of these deaths,” the report states.

State Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville, who has been pushing for a change in leadership within the agency, said he would’ve hoped the new director would come from a larger agency.

“I had hope that they would go out and find someone who had dealt with a large agency,” Meier told The Center Square. “I want to give this new director as much support as we can, but we are putting one person in there who is used to running an agency of 300 kids and asking her to take over a dysfunctional agency of over 17,000.”

Meier hopes Mueller will bring new ideas to the agency.

“I hope they are willing to look at new ideas and see how we can change this and fix some of the families faster before the custody of the children is taken away from these parents,” Meier said.

Others have also weighed in on the new hire for DCFS.

“DCFS must embrace the challenge of finding a safe place to stay preferably with the child’s family members – when it is necessary for the Department to assume care for a child,” a statement from the ACLU of Illinois said. “DCFS also must provide services to meet children’s individual needs and turn away from the use of large, impersonal institutional settings. This is a challenging job that requires a leader with vision and a commitment to transformational change.”

Illinois Senate Minority Leader John Curran, R-Downers Grove, said the failures within DCFS start and end with the governor.

“Governor Pritzker has had more than five years to bring DCFS into compliance with the federal court consent decree overseeing his department’s ongoing failures with some of our most vulnerable youth,” Curran said. “To date, the governor has failed to lead the agency into compliance. While I appreciate Director Mueller’s willingness to move over from the DJJ to lead this agency, until Gov. Pritzker focuses his attention and prioritizes successful compliance at DCFS, vulnerable children will continue to be exposed to unnecessary risk.”

Mueller will take over for Smith on Feb. 1.

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