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Contempt citations against DCFS director reversed by appellate court

The director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Marc D. Smith testifies before the House Appropriations-Human Services Committee Friday, April 26, 2019 in Chicago.

An appellate court on Wednesday reversed several contempt of court citations that were filed in recent months against Department of Children and Family Services Director Marc Smith for failing to comply with court orders to place state wards in appropriate settings.

The court found that Smith did not willfully ignore a Cook County judge’s order to move children who were discharged from psychiatric hospitals into group homes or residential settings. He was just unable to do it.

The opinion written by First District Appellate Court Justice Joy Cunningham stated that for a judge to find a party in contempt there must be an order of the court and proof of willful disobedience of that order. The appellate court found that DCFS did try to comply with the court orders, but it acknowledged that those efforts “fell woefully short of expectations.”

“We are pleased that the appellate court found the contempt orders were erroneous,” DCFS spokesperson William McCaffrey said in a statement. “As the appellate court described, DCFS has been actively working to secure clinically appropriate placements for these children. Based on the record of DCFS’ actions, the appellate court found it was an abuse of the trial court’s discretion to hold the agency in contempt.”

In each case where Cook County Judge Patrick Murphy cited Smith for indirect civil contempt and fined him $1,000 per each day the kids remained hospitalized, he also acknowledged that DCFS was actively engaged in trying to secure appropriate placements for the minors.

Murphy found that Smith was in contempt for failing to comply with the court’s order, opining that DCFS had “ignored the trial court’s orders.” Cunningham wrote that such a ruling was “inconsistent with the record.”

Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert, whose office represents state wards, including eight children involved in 10 contempt citations, said Wednesday that he will ask the Illinois Supreme Court to review the decision.

“We will continue to be aggressive about pursuing contempt of court findings in appropriate cases where DCFS unlawfully forces children to languish in wholly inappropriate placements like psychiatric hospitals, emergency rooms, detention centers, offices, ‘temporary’ shelters, and the like,” Golbert said Wednesday afternoon.

While the court opinion was a win for DCFS, Cunningham also called the agency’s efforts to place the children “seemingly inefficient” and “clearly ineffective.”

The ruling found that while the contempt citations may have been issued in error, Murphy’s efforts were meant to force Smith and the agency into action in these cases to address “a serious widespread problem.”

The appellate court also noted that the eight minors were ultimately placed in appropriate settings.

DCFS attorneys argued the agency had done “everything it could” to place children and faced many obstacles affecting appropriate placement, including staffing and COVID-19 pandemic-related issues.

The appellate court decision also acknowledged the judge’s frustration at the agency’s failure and the difficulties the agency faces while placing children with very complicated histories, personal circumstances and specific treatment plans.

“DCFS is tasked with providing for some of the state’s most vulnerable youth, who present a wide range of significant challenges. The fact that some of the minors were hospitalized beyond medical necessity or left in inappropriate placements for months, or even over a year in some instances is absolutely unacceptable,” the ruling stated.

Golbert said there are eight children with cases on the “beyond medical necessity” or “stuck kids” docket that was created in December 2021.

“DCFS will continue working closely with the trial court to ensure children are placed as quickly as possible in clinically appropriate settings, as we have done with each of the youth cited in the contempt orders,” McCaffrey said.

Golbert maintained that expanded services for all children in care are still much needed.

“DCFS must finally, once and for all, get its act together and develop the array of placements and services that our children so desperately need,” he said. “The current dysfunctional state of affairs at DCFS is inexcusable.”

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Capitol News Illinois

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation that provides coverage of state government to newspapers throughout Illinois. It is funded by donations from the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. The mission of Capitol News Illinois is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government. Capitol News Illinois provides year-round, daily coverage of the Legislature, including committee hearings; state agencies and issues; state office holders; and the Illinois Supreme Court and legal matters.

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