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DCFS Director comes under fire for child deaths, improper placements

DCFS Director Marc Smith answers questions during a House committee virtual hearing in January. Smith was also questioned this week about child deaths, DCFS worker safety and inappropriate placements of DCFS wards.
(Credit: blueroomstream.com)
DCFS Director Marc Smith answers questions during a House committee virtual hearing in January. Smith was also questioned this week about child deaths, DCFS worker safety and inappropriate placements of DCFS wards.

A Cook County judge this week found the director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services in contempt for the fifth and sixth time this year for housing two girls in locked psychiatric facilities unnecessarily.

Director Marc Smith faced four previous contempt citations for failing to place children in proper homes in violation of court orders. Each of the six contempt citations included a $1,000-per-day fine for Smith.

After being found in contempt, DCFS found placement for three of the children and the initial contempt citations were purged and the fines waived. In one case, the girl was re-admitted to the hospital.

In the latest cases, Cook County Judge Patrick T. Murphy held Smith in contempt on Thursday for failing to comply with court orders to move two girls out of locked psychiatric facilities.

In one case, an 11-year-old girl has been ready for discharge since April 30, 2021. She remains in the psychiatric hospital more than 300 days later. DCFS determined the girl needs a residential placement, but failed to move her there. Murphy ordered the girl to be removed from the hospital in February and put into a residential placement, but she remained there.

In the other case, a 15-year-old girl was held in a psychiatric hospital. She was ready for discharge on Dec. 6. DCFS recommended a specialized foster home, but despite a court order on Jan. 27, the girl remained at the hospital.

The judge ordered another $1,000-per-day fine in these cases but stayed them until March 9.

Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert said finding a state agency director in contempt of court is very rare.

A DCFS placement shortage crisis has become so extreme, he added, that for the first time in more than 30 years that Golbert has been practicing in juvenile court, the court created a special docket for kids stuck in locked psychiatric hospitals.

“This docket has become known as the ‘placement crisis docket’ and is sometimes also referred to as the ‘stuck kids call,’” Golbert said in statement.

Smith appeared before a House Human Services Appropriations Committee on Thursday and answered pointed questions about the contempt citations. Rep. Kathleen Willis, D-Addison, challenged Smith’s assertion that kids were being moved out of improper placements quickly.

“You're not placing them very quickly. Okay. You will not be held in contempt of court if you were placing them very quickly,” she said. These are cases that are languishing for months that are waiting, so why are we not being proactive, knowing that these children are going to be released from psychiatric care. And what's holding it up? Why does it wait until an order of contempt of court gets placed on you to suddenly go quickly on this?”

Smith countered that 20 kids held in psychiatric hospitals beyond medical necessity are being placed in proper placements every month. He also said parents place their children with DCFS because they are unable to access mental health resources for their children.

“I appreciate that we have a judge who is trying to use what authority and power he has to impact change,” Smith said. “But it is really a partnership that we are offering. I'm willing and able to do the work that we're doing for this and to address this issue aggressively. The truth of the matter is, this is a universal issue that we all have to work on taking the lead, but this is an ongoing community-based issue. And that's falling into our system.”

Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, also questioned Smith about the death of Damari Perry, who lived in Mayfield’s district. Perry, 6, was found dead in an alley in Gary, Indiana. Damari was taken into the state’s care in 2015, but was returned to his mother’s care, along with his siblings, two years later. Two subsequent abuse allegations were received by DCFS, including an allegation that the mother wrote a note threatening to harm Damari.

On Dec. 29, prosecutors said Damari was punished with a shower in cold water. He vomited, went unresponsive and later died. Jannie Perry, the boy’s mother, and two siblings face charges in connection with his death.

Since Damari’s death, two other children have died after DCFS received allegations that they were abused.

Sophia Faye Davis, 1, of Dawson, died on Feb. 8 after a visitation with her father. Her father’s girlfriend, Cierra Coker, is currently facing charges of aggravated battery of a child and first-degree murder. Cassy Needham, the child’s mother, took the child to a hospital a month earlier after she discovered Sophia had injuries, including a broken arm, after a visit with the child’s father and Coker.

Zaraz Walker, 7 months, of Bloomington, was reported missing on Feb. 12. Kimberlee Burton, Zaraz’s mother, told relatives the child had died while sleeping with her and she had left Zaraz’s body in a Bloomington cemetery. The baby’s remains were not found. Burton had previously been investigated for abuse and neglect related to her other four children. At the time of Zaraz’s disappearance, DCFS had an open case but could not find Burton.

Burton is being held on $250,000 bond on a Class 4 felony charge of concealment of a death related to Zaraz. She also faces child endangerment charges for leaving her 5- and 6-year-old children alone. The fourth child lives elsewhere and has been determined to be safe.

Legislators questioned agency heads about an audit that found DCFS did not make timely determinations of whether reports of child abuse and neglect were credible. Under the law, DCFS has 60 days to make those findings.

“I have a lack of confidence in DCFS in your current administration, and your leadership abilities over there,” Mayfield said. “So I have some problems.”

Mayfield said her time on the human services appropriations committee has featured several conversations about DCFS funding and needed reforms.

“Every year you guys come back and ask for more money. You tell us the same stories that you're going to hire more case managers. You're going to address these issues and nothing happens. Your budget is one of the largest budgets in the state of Illinois, and we're just not getting our money's worth. These are taxpayer dollars,” Mayfield said.

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