Cook County judge cites DCFS director for contempt

Cook County judge cites DCFS director for contempt

Finds agency failed to move children from inappropriate placements

Capitol News Illinois

A Cook County judge found Illinois Department of Children & Family Services Director Marc Smith in contempt for the continued improper placement of two state wards.

Cook County Circuit Judge Patrick T. Murphy on Thursday, Jan. 6, also fined Smith $1,000 a day in each of the cases for every day the two children — a 9-year-old girl, known in court records as A.M.; and a 13-year-old boy, known as C.R.M. — remained in improper placements. In both cases the orders are stayed — in one case until 4 p.m. Wednesday and in the other until 4 p.m. Jan. 18 — for Smith to seek appellate review. 

“The contempt finding and the $1,000-a-day fine is based upon the fact that Director Smith has disobeyed numerous court orders directing him to place the minor in a clinically appropriate placement and to take the minor out of the mental hospital to which she has been confined since June 1, 2021, against the advice of medical staff which determined that she could have been discharged on that date,” Murphy wrote in the contempt order on A.M.’s case.

The 13-year-old boy C.R.M. was also ordered on Nov. 14 to be taken out of temporary shelter where he was confined since Aug. 14 when he was placed in a temporary shelter in Mount Vernon ­— 279 miles from Chicago where his mother lives. Before that, C.R.M., who has severe mental health issues, was at another temporary shelter in Chicago where he slept in a utility room.  At that time, DCFS told the court that the child needed a therapeutic foster home placement. The Mount Vernon shelter is a temporary placement for children for fewer than 30 days. C.R.M. has been at the shelter 149 days, as of Monday.

The 9-year-old girl suffered years of sexual and physical abuse in her biological home. She was psychiatrically hospitalized since April 24. Doctors cleared her for discharge on June 1. A judge ordered three times that the girl be placed in an appropriate placement. She is not going to school or being involved in other activities, said Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert.

“She’s been in there for the Fourth of July, her ninth birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s,” Golbert said. “Enough is enough. If there was ever a kid who needed to get out of a locked psych ward and into an appropriate placement, it would be this girl.”

The 9-year-old has been held in a locked psychiatric unit for 223 days, as of Monday.

The Cook County Public Guardian’s Office, represents abused and neglected children. Golbert’s office represents both of the children in these cases. 

DCFS has placed 356 children statewide in inappropriate settings for an average of 55 days, Golbert said. There were so many children that Murphy, the presiding judge over the child protection division, noted that created a separate “beyond medical necessity” docket.

The court order noted that in 2020, DCFS had 314 wards in psychiatric hospitals beyond the date of discharge. In 2014, there were 75 DCFS wards in mental health facilities beyond the date of discharge. That number doubled in 2015 to 168.

Murphy, who served as Cook County public guardian for 25 years before becoming a judge, wrote in his order that “children cannot get out of psychiatric facilities because children cannot get out of residential facilities and hence there is a bottleneck.” He cited the lack of foster homes and the lack of group homes.

Golbert noted that DCFS has closed 460 residential beds since 2015 with the goal of replacing those residential placements with foster homes with specialized services for children. But those homes never materialized. DCFS opened fewer than 30 therapeutic homes since the closures and never reopened the residential placements.

“The highly structured therapeutic homes were never opened and the residential beds never replaced,” Murphy wrote. “Instead, all judges in this division consistently are told by DCFS agents to be patient while they try to place an increasing number of disturbed children into a decreasing number of residential places and appropriate specialized homes. Several years ago, this argument had some merit. But after years of children deteriorating in inappropriate and dangerous placements, the court must act.”

Murphy further found that DCFS Director Smith and his agents and predecessors violated the children’s constitutional rights and statutory mandates, but he was not holding him in contempt for that but for his refusal to follow valid court orders regarding the children’s placements.

In a letter to Rep. Camille Lilly, D-Oak Park, who chairs the Human Services Appropriations Committee, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, called for hearings into the matter, noting that DCFS has a billion dollar budget and is tasked with protecting the most vulnerable.

“The taxpayer dollars that have been allocated to DCFS are clearly not being spent the way the General Assembly intended, and the core mission of DCFS is not being fulfilled. It is the duty of your committee to immediately investigate this matter. Our children can’t wait,” Durkin wrote.

In 30 years of practicing in juvenile court, Golbert said, he’s never seen a contempt order filed against the head of DCFS.

“It’s unprecedented,” he said.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Beth Hundsdorfer

Beth HundsdorferBeth Hundsdorfer

Beth has worked in journalism for 25 years starting out as an intern at KMOX radio. In 2023, Beth won her second Robert F. Kennedy journalism award with her reporting partner, Molly Parker, who joined the CNI team earlier this year for their reporting on abuse at the state-run Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center in Anna.

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