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Pritzker names new head of embattled Illinois family services agency

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday named his director of juvenile justice to take over the troubled Department of Children and Family Services.

Heidi Mueller, 49, will replace Marc D. Smith, who has been at the helm since 2019 and has been held in contempt of court numerous times for improper housing of young people under the agency’s care. Smith, who announced his resignation in October, will help with the transition through January.

Mueller has been director of the Department of Juvenile Justice since 2016. The agency oversees the custody of young people committed to the state by Illinois courts.

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“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,” Mueller said in a statement. She thanked Smith for “driving real progress at DCFS.”

Mueller, who currently makes $173,250, was chosen after a nationwide search. Pritzker said her “transformative” work at Juvenile Justice has gained her national attention.

“Heidi’s care and compassion for the most at-risk young people in our state and her exceptional leadership are hallmarks of her career and I know that her passion and expertise will be a significant asset as we continue to improve our state’s child welfare system,” Pritzker said in a statement.

Smith, 54, whose salary is $210,000, began his tenure months into Pritzker’s first term. The Democrat had pledged reforms, releasing an outside report on agency failures including the deaths of three children under its care in just a few months.

But the department continued to struggle. In 2022, Smith was held in contempt of court on numerous occasions for failing to find proper placement for young people in the agency’s care. Pritzker repeatedly blamed his Republican predecessor for the dismantling of private social-service agencies capable of proper youth housing during a budget stalemate with Democrats in the Legislature from 2015 to 2017.

The situation has seen little improvement. DCFS’ own annual report on placement released last week showed that during the fiscal year that ended last June, hundreds of children were kept in so-called temporary quarters, in some cases for months, or held in psychiatric hospitals beyond need for treatment or juvenile incarcerations past their release dates because DCFS had no place to put them.

The DCFS inspector general’s annual report released last week indicated that during the same fiscal year, 160 children with some level of involvement with the department had died.

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“The DCFS director has arguably the hardest and most important job in state government. Heidi Mueller has an outstanding reputation as a reform-minded manager and brings substantial child welfare experience to the task,” said Charles Golbert, the Cook County public guardian, whose office has filed class-action lawsuits over lengthy placements in psychiatric hospitals and juvenile justice incarceration. He urged Mueller to make the expansion of DCFS’s placement capacity an urgent priority.

Heidi Dalenberg, interim legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which also has legal action against DCFS, said Mueller “must embrace the challenge of finding a safe place to stay — preferably with the child’s family members” and turn away from large, institutional settings.

“This is a challenging job that requires a leader with vision and a commitment to transformational change,” Dalenberg said.

Robert Vickery, currently deputy director of programs at Juvenile Justice, will serve as interim director of the agency during a search for Mueller’s permanent replacement.

   

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