Governor names new DCFS director
Heidi Mueller, who previously served as the state’s director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, was named director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services on Wednesday. (Capitol News Illinois file photo; Mueller image from the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice)
Former director Marc Smith will stay on until Feb. 1
By BETH HUNDSDORFER
Capitol News Illinois
The troubled state agency charged with the protection of abused and neglected children will have new leadership in the new year.
Gov. JB Pritzker announced Wednesday that Department of Juvenile Justice Director Heidi Mueller will take over the embattled Department of Children and Family Services starting Feb. 1.
“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 stated in a news release on Wednesday.
Mueller will be the 15th director to head DCFS in the past two decades.
“As someone who has devoted my career to supporting children and families, I am honored and humbled to be entrusted by Governor Pritzker with the responsibility of leading DCFS,” Mueller stated in a news release.
Mueller has served as IDJJ Director since 2016, overseeing youth adjudicated as juvenile offenders. Mueller developed a close-to-home model for youth offenders and built a system of community care, according to the release.
“The DCFS director has arguably the hardest, and most important, job in state government,” said Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert, who has been one of agency’s critics. “Heidi Mueller has an outstanding reputation as a reform-minded manager and brings substantial child welfare experience to the task.”
Heidi Dahlenberg, legal director of the ACLU of Illinois and the lead attorney in a lawsuit against DCFS that has been ongoing since 1988, said Mueller takes over at a “crucial moment” marked by a need for placing youth in proper settings.
“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,” Dahlenberg said.
ACLU’s lawsuit, known as B.H. v. Smith, resulted in a consent decree that mandates reductions in caseloads, protection of agency funding, implementation of better training for caseworkers and private agency staff, and a reorganization of DCFS systems of supervision and accountability. Three decades after the consent decree, many problems, including understaffing, persist.
The news of Smith’s replacement came within hours of an email sent to DCFS employees on Tuesday afternoon, letting them know that Director Marc Smith would stick around past his stated Dec. 31 resignation date. He announced in October that he would step down at the end of 2023, but he will now stay on until the end of January “to provide ongoing continuity" to the agency, according to a statement from the agency.
Smith has headed the agency since 2019. For years, critics had called for Smith’s ouster, amid legislative hearings, contempt citations, a murdered child protection investigator and the highest number of children who died after contact with the agency in 20 years.
Last month, DCFS and its watchdog released two reports detailing failures of the agency to properly place children in appropriate settings and how failures to follow the law and the department's own policies compromised child safety.
DCFS released its annual “Youth in Care Awaiting Placement Report” to the General Assembly on Friday. The report showed 1,009 state wards were in emergency placements for more than 30 days, housed in psychiatric units beyond medical necessity, stayed in hospital emergency rooms for more than 24 hours, held in juvenile detention facilities after their schedule release dates, or placed in out-of-state treatment facilities.
In 330 cases, involving 296 children, DCFS forced children in state care, some as young as four years old, to remain in a locked psychiatric hospital after they were cleared for discharge. The report stated that more than 40 percent of these children were held in locked psychiatric hospitals for more than three months.
Last year, a Cook County judge cited Smith personally a dozen times for contempt of court for failing to put abused children in appropriate placements.
An appellate court vacated the contempt citations because Smith was not willfully disobeying the order but could not comply with the court order because DCFS did not have enough beds in group homes, shelters, or specialized foster placements. Some of the contempt citations were purged when the agency found the children appropriate placements.
The Office of the Inspector General, the agency’s internal watchdog, also released its annual report for fiscal year 2024 last month. The report detailed the deaths of 160 children who had been under the care of DCFS within a year of their deaths. The OIG investigated the deaths of 171 children in fiscal year 2023 – the highest number of deaths in two decades.
The report outlined new details in the death of 8-year-old Navin Jones, of Peoria. Though the reports are anonymous, the children are identifiable by the dates and circumstances outlined by the OIG.
Navin was unresponsive and weighed just 38 pounds when an ambulance was called to his Peoria home on March 29, 2022. Despite a history that included domestic violence, drug use, child abuse and neglect, that went back to Navin’s birth, the agency allowed Navin to remain in the custody of his parents, even though his grandmother had legal guardianship of the boy.
Six weeks before Navin’s death, a DCFS investigator interviewed him after receiving a hotline call reporting the child had black eyes and bruises, according to the annual report. The family put investigators off for eight days, dodging knocks at the door and skipping appointments.
During the interview eight days after the call, the report stated Navin denied anyone hurt him, but the worker acknowledged the parents were present for parts of the interview. The investigator also did not ask about the black eyes or bruises because Navin reported that he felt safe. She also failed to examine Navin for injuries. The entire interview was conducted with Navin in bed, wearing a hoodie and covered in a blanket.
The investigator told the OIG that Navin was clean, but “sickly and thin.”
The worker documented concerns about Navin’s weight, but Stephanie Jones, Navin’s mother, said Navin “ate all the time but did not gain weight.”
Brandon Walker, Navin’s father, and Jones told the investigator they could not take the child to the doctor because the paternal grandmother still had guardianship, so the worker focused on getting the guardianship transferred from the grandmother back to the parents. The grandmother told workers that she did not think returning guardianship was a good idea. The worker did not follow up on the reasons for the grandmother’s concerns.
When emergency responders were called to the home, Navin was unresponsive. A pile of urine-soaked sheets was found near his bed. His door was tied with rope. An exam revealed the 8-year-old weighed 38 pounds. He had ligature marks, a sign of restraint. He had bedsores on his back.
He later died at a Peoria hospital.
The coroner said it was the worst case of child abuse he had ever seen.
Walker was convicted of first-degree murder last month. Jones pleaded guilty to murder charges. Both are expected to be sentenced later this winter.
The report found that the supervisor failed to direct intervention to save Navin. The supervisor will face discipline for failing to ensure an adequate investigation and allowing a delay in seeing the child.
The worker who interviewed him in the weeks before his death was disciplined for failing to conduct an adequate investigation and seeking medical attention for Navin. The worker received an oral reprimand.
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