Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday announced a new leader for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, shifting a veteran youth justice practitioner who oversees the state’s juvenile detention system to head the troubled child welfare agency.
Heidi Mueller, who has been director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice since 2016, was chosen to head DCFS following a national search to replace Marc Smith, who has led the agency since April 2019. Smith, selected by Pritzker during his first year in office, announced in October he was stepping down.
Mueller said in a statement that during her time with the juvenile justice department she “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, whose appointment must be confirmed by the Illinois Senate, will take over an agency that has been the frequent target of criticism by Pritzker’s political foes as well as some of his fellow Democrats throughout his nearly five years in office.
The agency has gone through more than a dozen directors in 20 years, although Smith lasted longer than many of his predecessors.
Smith announced his resignation shortly after the state’s auditor general issued a scathing report on DCFS that cited numerous problems including significant delays in reporting abuse and neglect to local prosecutors, other state agencies and school officials.
Two more reports critical of the agency were released late last month. One of those found that in 1,009 instances, children who were supposed to be in short-term placements with the agency instead languished in places such as locked psychiatric hospitals, jails, out-of-state facilities or hospital emergency rooms for extended periods of time during the fiscal year ending last June 30. That was a slight increase from the previous year, the report said.
Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert, an ardent critic of DCFS and Smith’s leadership, was supportive of Pritzker’s appointment, saying Mueller has “an outstanding reputation as a reform-minded manager, and brings substantial child welfare experience to the task.”
“The DCFS director has arguably the hardest, and most important, job in state government,” Golbert said in an email. “I urge Director Mueller to make the expansion of DCFS’s placement capacity, and of high quality community-based services for children and families, an urgent priority. I also urge transparency, and that reform efforts be data-driven.”
Before taking the top job at the Department of Juvenile Justice, Mueller was director of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, advising the governor’s office and the Illinois General Assembly on juvenile justice policies and administering the state’s federal grant funding related to those issues.
Pritzker said Mueller’s work “over the last several years has been transformative for the juvenile justice system in Illinois.”
In 2020, Mueller oversaw a plan for youths in juvenile custody that focused on transitioning many of them to small, regional residential centers, investing in intervention services and increasing funding for victim services in communities beset by violence.
Pritzker’s office has said that the ideal candidate for the top DCFS job would have experience running a large child welfare organization either in the public or private sectors. Mueller’s background includes managing community programs for vulnerable youths and their families, social service research among other disciplines related to juvenile justice.
Prior to Mueller’s time as juvenile justice department director, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois in 2012 filed a lawsuit against the department that covered three issues: mental health, security or confinement, and educational services. Since then, the ACLU said the department has largely come into compliance in most of those areas, though it has struggled to meet educational services requirements in three Chicago-area facilities.
In a statement Wednesday, the ACLU said Mueller’s appointment to run DCFS comes “at a crucial moment.”
“DCFS must embrace the challenge of finding a safe place to stay — preferably with the child’s family members — when it is necessary for the (agency) to assume care for a child,” the ACLU said. “DCFS also must provide services to meet children’s individual needs, and turn away from the use of large, impersonal institutional settings.”
For more than three decades, DCFS has operated under federal court oversight stemming from ACLU litigation. The department made slow but steady progress in the 1990s, but then entered an era of massive turnover and controversy.
Senate Republican Leader John Curran on Wednesday chided Pritzker for not bringing DCFS into compliance with the consent decree.
“While I appreciate Director Mueller’s willingness to move over from the DJJ to lead this agency, until Gov. Pritzker focuses his attention and prioritizes successful compliance at DCFS, vulnerable children will continue to be exposed to unnecessary risk,” Curran, of Downers Grove, said in a statement.
When Smith took over in April 2019, DCFS faced a shortage of resources after the state was saddled with debt and other financial woes following a two-year budget impasse under Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Smith took over amid fallout from the death of A.J. Freund at the hands of his mother in 2019. Two former DCFS workers were charged with endangering the life or health of a child and one of them was convicted last year in what was believed to be the first successful prosecution of its kind in Illinois.
DCFS during Smith’s tenure also dealt with a number of fatal child abuse cases involving kids whose families had been investigated previously by DCFS, including those of 6-year-old Damari Perry of North Chicago; 1-year-old Sophia Faye Davis of Sangamon County; 7-month-old Zaraz Walker of Bloomington; 3-year-old Tamsin Miracle Sauer of Nelson; and 8-year-old Navin Jones of Peoria.
The agency lost one of its workers in January 2022 when child protection specialist Deidre Silas was stabbed to death while responding to a call about potentially endangered children at a home near Springfield.
Problems at the agency have persisted even as its budget has grown each year under Pritzker, with a recent $75 million bump partially aimed at hiring an additional 192 workers.
But criticism of the agency under Smith’s leadership intensified well before last year’s audit. He had previously been held in contempt of court a number of times — all or most cases of which were brought forward by Golbert — for violating court orders by failing to find children appropriate placements in a timely manner. Those orders, however, were later vacated.
In October, Pritzker announced plans for a new state agency focusing on early childhood education. As part of that reorganization, which would require legislative approval, the new agency would take on the day care licensing functions DCFS currently handles. Advocates and legislators long have suggested the change as a way to allow DCFS to focus on its main job of protecting children from abuse and neglect.
Chicago Tribune’s Dan Petrella contributed.