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New Illinois DCFS director promises improvements to child placement practices

New DCFS director sets out to reverse many years of failures at child welfare agency
New DCFS director sets out to reverse many years of failures at child welfare agency 02:26

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The new director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services testified Thursday about systemic issues she is now charged with fixing.

Heidi Mueller, who was appointed by Gov. JB Pritzker to head the department in January following the departure of former director Marc Smith, had to explain why some kids in the system are being held in psychiatric hospitals longer than medically necessary.

The hearing Thursday at Cook County Juvenile Court had to do with three specific cases - but also the decades long systemic failures that have caused kids to suffer.

In one case, a DCFS ward was left in an emergency room for over a week waiting for a placement at a psychiatric hospital - during which he was restrained in his bed 11 times and given 77 doses of tranquilizers.

In another case, over the span of about a month, a 13-year-old boy was left in an emergency room for a total of 20 days - no fresh air, no playground, no school.

A third child was placed into a psychiatric hospital twice. But he was left there for a total of 11 months - most of which passed after the doctors said he was ready for discharge.

"This is a relatively new phenomenon," said DCFS Chief Medical Consultant Dr. Michael Naylor.

Naylor, whom CBS 2 sat down with back in May 2022, said such psychiatric hospital holds are an unhealthy issue for the kids — and an expensive issue for taxpayers. Naylor said the program has grown over the last decade.

"They are definitely languishing," Naylor said in 2022.

Mueller acknowledged the problem when CBS 2 spoke to her outside court.

Hickey: "Director Mueller, how are you going to fix it?"

Mueller: "That's a great question. Like I said in the hearing today, it would be crazy for me to come in and say I'm going to fix it by myself."

Some kids get stuck in the hospitals because of a shortage of appropriate places for them to go once they're ready for discharge. Mueller's major goal is developing more specialized placements into which kids can move.

When it comes to those placements, Director Mueller said DCFS is awarding $100 million dollars to 13 different providers to provide more specialized placement for the kids.

"I'm trying to meet with as many people as I can, and listen to as much as I can - because we really have to do it together," Mueller said. "I can't do it by myself."

Mueller promised that improvement will be seen by the end of the calendar year. She will be held to that promise by the court.

Mueller is more than two months into the job. She questioned whether she was crazy to take on the role - but said she did it because she thought she could make a positive impact.

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