Pritzker Picks Illinois’ Juvenile Justice Head to Lead Troubled DCFS

Heidi Mueller, the current head of Illinois’ Juvenile Justice Department, has been picked to lead DCFS. (Credit: State of Illinois)Heidi Mueller, the current head of Illinois’ Juvenile Justice Department, has been picked to lead DCFS. (Credit: State of Illinois)

After conducting a national search, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has pulled from within his own administration’s ranks for a new leader of the embattled Illinois agency responsible for nearly 20,000 minors in the state’s care.

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Pritzker on Wednesday announced that he’ll appoint Heidi Mueller, the current head of Illinois’ Juvenile Justice Department, to head the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) starting in February.

Mueller said in a statement that she’s devoted her career to “supporting children and families.”

“In my role as Director of DJJ, I have witnessed firsthand the critical importance of a strong and supportive safety net for our state’s most vulnerable residents, and the tragedy that results when there are holes in that net,” she said. “I am grateful to Director Smith for his successful work in driving real progress at DCFS, and I look forward to carrying the torch forward toward an Illinois that supports and empowers all children and families to thrive.”

Current DCFS Director Marc Smith, who announced in October that he will be exiting, will stay on through the rest of this month.

Pritzker had stood by Smith, citing a priority for stability at the agency after cuts during the state’s historic budget impasse during Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration weakened the network of support for state wards in need of a place to live.

Pritkzer said under Smith, DCFS hired more staff including case managers, increased payments to child welfare residential providers contracted by the state and added residential spots, referred to as “beds.”

Still, legislators from both sides of the aisle and critical child welfare experts had called for Smith to be fired for failing to move children out of psychiatric hospitals after they were given medical approval to be released.

Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert said the placement problem in recent years became so severe in some instances children were forced to sleep on office floors.

In April, Golbert told WTTW News that DCFS has failed those in its care, “in every major significant way they can.”

According to a placement report just filed by DCFS on Dec. 29, over the last fiscal year that ended in June, 1,009 children experienced what are problematic placements, especially for vulnerable youngsters, including living in emergency placements like shelters for more than 30 days, being kept in psychiatric hospitals beyond medically necessity, stuck in a juvenile detention center after the date they should have been released or having to stay in an emergency room for more than 24 hours due to a no available space at a psychiatric hospital. 

The report details efforts DCFS is making to reduce those stays, including collaborations with hospitals, developing specialized foster care resources and a specialized unit dedicated to monitoring emergency placements.

A new state law (HB 3705 / Public Act 103-0050) specifies that DCFS’ aim should include “placing children in suitable permanent family arrangements,”  which is a minor change in phrasing that the sponsoring state Rep. Norma Hernandez, D-Melrose Park, said was intended to refine the agency’s mission and improve oversight in the face of “persistent and stubborn problems at DCFS.”

“The reason DCFS exists is to protect kids. In recent years, that overriding priority has gotten lost,” Hernandez said in June. “With this bill, we’re laying the groundwork for more reforms and better outcomes for the ones who matter most, our kids.”

No specifics about future plans for DCFS were included in the release announcing Mueller’s pending appointment, which featured quotes from Democratic lawmakers praising her.

The leader of child advocacy organization Illinois Collaboration on Youth also lauded Mueller’s nomination.

“Throughout her 10 years at the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, Director Mueller has demonstrated an abiding commitment to addressing the root causes driving young people into the justice system,” ICOY’s CEO Andrea Durbin said. “Director Mueller understands the importance of investing in young people, their families, and communities so they can thrive.”

The Illinois Senate must confirm Mueller’s nomination, though she can temporarily serve in an acting capacity.

Senate Republican Leader John Curran said he appreciates that Mueller will transition agencies, but that isn’t enough.

“Governor Pritzker has had more than five years to bring DCFS into compliance with the federal court consent decree overseeing his department’s ongoing failures with some of our most vulnerable youth. To date, the governor has failed to lead the agency into compliance,” Curran said. “Until Gov. Pritzker focuses his attention and prioritizes successful compliance at DCFS, vulnerable children will continue to be exposed to unnecessary risk.”

The deputy director of programs at DJJ, Robert Vickery, will serve as interim director of that agency until the position’s filled permanently.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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