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Embattled DCFS Director Marc Smith announces resignation

A Black man wearing a dark blue suit speaks to someone across from him with his hand outstretched.
Ashlee Rezin
Chicago Sun-Times
Marc Smith, appointed director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services in 2019, said Wednesday that he would step down by the end of the year.

Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Director Marc Smith on Wednesday announced he would step down from his high-profile post by year’s end.

The resignation, announced in a call with staffers, comes a week after a blistering report from the Illinois auditor general that found 33 instances of noncompliance, including that the department did not immediately report to local states’ attorneys 28% of child abuse and neglect reports involving children who had tested positive for a controlled substance.

In another instance, the agency neglected to notify directors of state agencies in a timely fashion about cases in which children were alleged to have been abused while receiving care in a hospital.

In all those cases, the reporting time ranged from 34 days to 885 days from the time the investigation was opened, the report found. The report also noted the department didn’t take immediate action to take care of the children in those cases.

DCFS management told the auditor general’s office there wasn’t a way to monitor and track field investigator notifications due to employee oversight.

After the report, DCFS, in a lengthy statement, in part blamed some of the agency’s problems on the fact that they arose at the height of the pandemic. But the agency has a long history of problems, even before Smith took the reins.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2019 appointed Smith to lead the troubled agency, which had seen an astounding 12 acting and interim directors within 10 years. At the time, Smith was handed the heavy responsibility of dealing with problems directors have faced for decades, including high caseloads for social workers, low wages for contracted employees, management issues within field offices and lengthy employment processes.

A DCFS review in 2019 found a lack of collaboration between investigators and case managers and a gap in historical information about allegations.

Smith faced numerous contempt charges under his leadership for failing to properly care for children in the agency. But an appellate court panel in November 2022 ruled that the judge had abused his discretion with the finding against Smith, overturning 10 of them.

Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert said Smith leaves behind a mixed legacy, having provided “sorely needed longer term leadership” and leading the state through an unprecedented pandemic.

But Golbert also noted the even though state’s budgets nearly doubled since Smith took over, that didn’t translate into improved care for children under the agency.

“The most problematic issue remains a crisis level shortage of placements for children,” Golbert said. “It’s so bad that under Marc Smith’s tenure, we started seeing children being forced to sleep on the floors of DCFS offices, an inappropriate placement, for the first time since the 1990s.”

Golbert said children were also forced to remain locked in psychiatric hospitals for weeks, even after they were cleared to leave because the agency couldn’t find placement. Children were also stuck in juvenile jails with no placement after judges had ordered that they could leave.

In some cases, there were enough empty beds, but not enough staffers to take care of the children, he said. The state continues to struggle with hiring investigators, among other DCFS positions, despite the pay increasing under Smith’s leadership.

“There were stories that when an Amazon plant opened, I believe in Joliet, that the starting salary for that Amazon plant was higher than the starting salary for investigators out of that very office,” Golbert said. “That’s a problem.”

Illinois House Republicans last week held a news conference demanding changes at the agency, including at the top. Illinois House Republican Leader Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, on Wednesday called DCFS “a dysfunctional agency” and said “immediate change is critically necessary.” McCombie said the House Republican caucus plans to advocate for proposals to reform the agency.

The governor’s office confirmed Smith’s resignation and said it would be conducting a national search to replace him. Pritzker announced Smith’s exit in an email announcing two other transitions, including the exit of Theresa Eagleson, director of the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, and Paula Basta, director of the Illinois Department on Aging.

Smith in a statement said he is “incredibly proud of the profound progress we have made.”

“DCFS continues making a difference where it matters most — by keeping children safe, creating brighter futures for the youth in our care, and giving hope to families in crisis that need support,” Smith said. “We are on our way to building a child welfare system in Illinois that will once again serve as a national model.”


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Tina Sfondeles is the chief political reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times