Naming DCFS chief must be a priority for Quinn

Staff Writer
Chillicothe Times-Bulletin

One of Illinois’ most-important and highly scrutinized agencies, the long-troubled Department of Children and Family Services, continues to lack a permanent director to guide the state’s child welfare efforts.

Gov. Pat Quinn is conducting a national search to find a new director for the agency, which has had four chiefs in less than a year and currently is under the leadership of yet another interim director.

Quinn, in a meeting with The State Journal-Register’s editorial board April 1, did not elaborate on the status of the search but spoke well of acting director Bobbie Gregg.

“The person I appointed as acting director is a very, I think, responsible, well-regarded person. She’s a lawyer, she’s also a social worker,” he said. “We’re doing a search to find a permanent director, and that will happen.”

While it’s critical for Quinn to take some time to find the best-qualified person to run the agency, it is equally important that a new director be hired sooner rather than later.

DCFS faces too many daunting challenges in the coming months and years for the search to drag on unnecessarily — the safety and well being of thousands of Illinois children chief among them.

A lawmaker earlier this year put it more bluntly, calling the agency’s challenges “horrendous.”

An audit in June revealed a series of troubling issues at the agency that merit the full attention of a long-term director.

According to the audit, DCFS caseworkers missed the 60-day deadline to investigate child abuse claims nearly 900 times in 2012 — up from 115 the previous year.

It’s the largest backlog since 2006.

The agency also lagged on initiating child death reviews.

The audit showed about 70 percent of child death reviews in 2012 were conducted an average of 158 days after the close of an investigation.

The reviews are supposed to occur within 90 days.

The agency also had lapses in its accounting.

DCFS in 2012 had just over 2,800 employees.

That year workers handled more than 253,000 hotline calls and assisted nearly 17,000 children in foster care, relative care, residential placement, independent living situations and finalized adoptions, according to the audit.

As if that weren’t enough, the amount of money available to the agency is in question, as lawmakers consider whether to make permanent a temporary income tax hike to help the state make ends meet.

Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, who is chairman of the House appropriations committee for human resources, in March told The Associated Press DCFS could see about 15 percent of its funding eliminated if the tax is allowed to roll back.

Coupled with the absence of a long-term director, such cuts could make it nearly impossible for DCFS to initiate reforms that clearly are needed.

The most recent director, Arthur Bishop, an ordained minister and former DCFS deputy director, was appointed to the post in January, but resigned a month later after revelations that he had a criminal record for stealing from patients at a mental health facility and that he had fathered a daughter out of wedlock.

He said he was stepping down to avoid being a distraction to Quinn’s re-election campaign.

Bishop replaced previous DCFS director Richard Calica, who died in December after a battle with cancer. Calica, a lifelong clinical social worker, had been in the post since December 2011.

He was credited with reducing backlogs and caseloads, cutting middle management and modernizing the agency’s hotline during his tenure.

Calica replaced Erwen McEwen, who resigned as DCFS director in September 2011 after fraud allegations involving millions of dollars in state grants.

McEwen had been in the job since November 2006.

Illinoisans should share the concerns of state Sen. Julie Morrison, D-Deerfield, who oversaw hearings in the fall that were triggered by problems documented in the DCFS audit.

She said that without a permanent leader, needed reforms within DCFS will be indefinitely on hold.

“It’s hard to get traction when you don’t have anybody that’s really leading this,” she was quoted as saying.

Quinn must name a replacement as soon as possible — one that is well qualified, reform minded and willing to stick around for the long haul for the sake of Illinois’ abused and neglected children.

— GateHouse Media Illinois