Advocates demand reforms within Illinois DCFS

Published: Aug. 29, 2022 at 6:15 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD (WGEM) - AJ Freund, Rica Rountree, and Navin Jones are just a few of the children who died while in DCFS care. Advocates rallying outside the Illinois Capitol Monday want to see significant reforms within the Department of Children and Family Services to keep children safe.

The small group of about 25 people said something needs to be done soon to address the foster care crisis in Illinois and hold the agency accountable.

Some have lost grandchildren to DCFS because of mental health issues or disabilities within their families. Others have survived the state’s foster care system but want to see reform to prevent the same abuse they went through years ago.

Trea Jackson said people were afraid to talk about the foster care system when she was younger, but she feels it’s time people are educated about the traumatic experiences some youth in care endure.

“Change the name. Make it a new system, and then have a better outcome,” Jackson said. “I think that DCFS is tied to so much bad and negative stigma. Let’s just start over.”

Jackson told supporters that Illinois should promote more “family first” policies to keep loving family members together. But if children have to be in the state’s care, Jackson stressed that they should not be further abused. She feels that Illinois needs to drastically change the agency now so there are more stories about survivors instead of failures.

“They’re operating above the law,” said Amanda Beyers. “And we need to put a system in place where their wrongdoing and levels of corruption and illegal infringement are held accountable. There should be no child dying on their watch.”

Beyers created a nonprofit organization three years ago to provide support for victims and survivors of the DCFS system and hold caseworkers accountable. DCFS Undercover now has over a thousand members on Facebook that frequently engage with Beyers.

While Illinois lawmakers have appropriated historic funding for the agency, Beyers feels more money should go toward reuniting families instead of keeping children locked in psychiatric wards.

DCFS Director Marc Smith has faced intense scrutiny from lawmakers and advocates as a Cook County Judge has found him in contempt of court 12 times this year for failing to properly place youth in care. The Illinois Auditor General’s office also documented 30 problems within the agency during a compliance examination spanning from 2018 to June of 2020. Eighteen of the 30 issues were repeated findings that the Auditor General wanted DCFS to fix in the past.

“It hasn’t worked staying silent,” said advocate Karen Cook. “So speak out, be loud. No more silence.”

Jackson said DCFS makes a promise that they will keep children safe. Still, she said the agency failed her and many others.

“When a kid comes to you and says, ‘Hey, I’m being abused,’ let’s stop it. Let’s look into it,” Jackson said. “Let’s advocate for them instead of against them.”

Jackson worked with Rep. Tom Morrison (R-Palatine) to amend the Foster Children’s Bill of Rights last year to help DCFS youth have independence when they age out of the system. Gov. JB Pritzker signed the proposal into law in May to ensure those teens have the education and life skills they need to be productive as adults. The law calls for DCFS to enroll young people in independent living services programs before they transition out of foster care. That plan said youth in care should learn how to be self-sufficient with employment, finances, meals, and housing while making long-term goals before they adjust to life outside the system.

Jackson is thankful Morrison’s bill was signed into law, but she noted that DCFS leaders need to listen to more ideas from former foster children who know the trauma these youth are still going through.

“It’s important that kids start to learn at age 14 or 15 so we can slowly get them ready and give them the education that they need so when they get out of the system they don’t end up homeless or end up unprepared like I was,” Jackson said. “It took me a while to catch up.”

A DCFS spokesperson said the agency is continuously working to protect vulnerable children and help strengthen families in crisis.

“While previous administrations and general assemblies hollowed out DCFS, under the current administration the child welfare system in Illinois has received hundreds of millions in additional funding,” said Bill McCaffrey. “We have made significant, measurable progress as a result, including hiring more employees, increasing support for our private partners, and addressing some of the longstanding challenges facing the department after years of neglect.”

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