By Chuck Goudie and Barb Markoff
Some say Marc Smith may have the most difficult job in state government. Smith is the acting director of the embattled Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. He has spent his entire career working in child welfare here in Illinois.
In April, Smith was appointed by Governor JB Pritzker the same week 5-year-old AJ Freund was killed in Crystal Lake in a stunning case that received worldwide attention. AJ’s parents are charged with his murder and the family had extensive prior contact with DCFS.
In an interview with the I-Team, Smith said he is committed to stop that kind of fiasco from happening again.
“Our job is to try to prevent tragedy,” Smith said.
His tenure began during a tumultuous time for the agency, a lack of leadership blamed for many of its troubles. He is the 13th acting director in 10 years. Smith said when any child dies it is heartbreaking for everyone involved.
In May, a three-year performance audit of DCFS found the system had prior contact with 102 children who died between 2015 and 2017. Smith said that has led to new protocols.
“One of the ways we’re trying to address that is we review a tremendous amount of our cases,” Smith told the I-Team. “One of the areas we look at, cases that have reached a level of tragedy or concern. And then we pull those cases and the management team looks at each individual case. We do it to see what we can learn, if there were mistakes made, if there were things we should have done better.”
The 2015 Child Welfare report to Congress is the most recent one available. Illinois has the 15th highest child fatality rate in the nation. From 2011 through 2015, the percentage of children experiencing a recurrence of neglect or abuse within six months of contact with DCFS increased by 62 percent. That is the fourth highest increase of any state.
“There is always work we can do better. And that it’s our responsibility as a system to see our staff up to be able to make the best decisions that they can make,” Smith admitted.
In March, Gov. Pritzker requested the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall review DCFS. Its report highlighted problems connected with the agency’s priority on keeping families together even if there are strong indications of continued abuse.
Smith said there is no perfect formula for a family’s success.
“We need to address each individual family where they live and so we won’t make a systematic decision one way or the other. So, there’s not a universal expectation that every child stays home or that every child comes into care,” Smith emphasized.
Budget enhancements for the department are allowing DCFS to increase the number of case workers and other front line staff by 300 employees. Smith said this will help keep more children safe.
“My commitment is complete. Child welfare is what I do,” he said. “There is an understanding that I have that it is going to take time to make sure that we grow and move forward effectively. We’re not criticizing our staff. Our staff make the hardest decisions, they do the work nobody else wants to do. I have committed to help serving them.”
Smith is officially the acting director until he is approved by the State Senate.
This article originally appeared in ABC7 News.