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Illinois DCFS Director Marc Smith On Hot Seat Before State Lawmakers Over Lack Of Beds And Foster Homes For Kids, Other Issues

CHICAGO (CBS) -- He heads the department mandated to care for the state's most vulnerable children, and on Friday, Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Director Marc Smith was on the legislative hot seat.

CBS 2 Political Investigator Dana Kozlov listened in on the virtual hearing, during which lawmakers wanted to hear how Smith plans to fix the department's many problems.

Lawmakers have been calling for these hearings for weeks, and some have even suggested overhauling the department if Smith can't right the ship.

"I am not looking to attack you," Illinois state Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer (R-Jacksonville) told Smith at the hearing.

But Illinois lawmakers wanted answers from Smith, and solutions.

"How you're increasing capacity, and how long that's going to take," said Rep. Anna Moeller (D-Elgin).

That issue – capacity, or the number of residential beds and foster homes for children in the state's care, is an ongoing and critical concern. It is the main reason behind an issue we have extensively reported – children being kept in psychiatric hospitals longer than medically necessary. In some cases, months longer.

"How many have been in a psychiatric hospital of those 53 beyond six months?" asked Rep. Jackie Haas (R-Kankakee).

"We have 53 children that are beyond medical necessity," Smith replied. "We have five who have been there longer than six months."

A Cook County Juvenile Court judge held Smith in contempt in three recent cases due to DCFS' failure to get those children into appropriate care.

"We are asking people to specifically develop beds that meet these kids' needs," Smith said.

Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert told Kozlov he felt Smith was underselling the urgency of the issue.

"I was disappointed," Golbert said. "I got the sense that he was trying to downplay this problem."

Smith said DCFS expects to add 100 residential beds by the end of the year. But Golbert said those specifics also fell short.

"I've actually only seen new (requests for proposals) for a few dozen beds, which is a drop in the bucket," Golbert said. "It barely replaces the beds lost in the last period of time."

More than 500 beds have been lost since 2015. But the bed shortage was not the only issue discussed.

Smith said there are 2,000 more kids in care now than in 2020 – further straining the system.

"The reason why there has been an increase in the number of kids in care is because we've had to make some real determinations about safety out in communities," Smith said.

Smith also said the DCFS is 100 staffers short, but aggressively looking to hire. He said funding in all areas – but that one in particular – is crucial in order to provide workers with a living wage and not the minimum of $12 an hour.

The hearing Friday was one of several scheduled hearings, and state lawmakers plan to keep the full court press on Smith. One lawmaker, state Rep. Kathleen Willis (D-Northlake), has also introduced legislation to form an oversight committee basically to keep better tabs on DCFS issues and challenges and how the agency is spending taxpayer dollars.

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