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Both parties call for reform of DCFS on three-year anniversary of AJ Freund’s death

Hundreds of shoes sit in the Capitol Rotunda signify the lives lost to child abuse.
Hundreds of shoes sit in the Capitol Rotunda signify the lives lost to child abuse.(WGEM)
Published: Apr. 7, 2022 at 6:43 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WGEM) - The first floor of the Illinois State Capitol Rotunda was filled with shoes, but not all the shoes were filled.

Hundreds of pairs were left empty in remembrance of the 347 children who have died while under Department of Children and Family Services care since April 2019, when A.J. Freund of Crystal Lake was killed by his parents. The display was organized by McHenry County resident Tracy Kotzman and the group Roar for AJ, established in his memory.

On the house floor, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle took the day as an opportunity to call for significant change to the agency. The embattled department has been the subject of recent scandal and tragedy in multiple areas of their department: child care and worker safety.

“It’s an agency that’s sole responsibility is to protect the lives of children who have a limited shelf life,” Rep. Steven Reick (R-Harvard) said. “Everyday that goes by those kids are losing their childhood, and they’re losing what it takes to become adults.”

Director Marc Smith has been held in contempt of court at least eight times for leaving children in medical and psychiatric facilities longer then necessary. On March 29, in Peoria, an 8-year-old Navin Jones died in a local hospital. DCFS revealed they had had contact with his family since his birth.

Additionally, DCFS caseworker Diedre Silas was killed while on a call Thayer, Illinois, in January of this year. Her death as well as the 2017 death of Pam Knight in northwestern Illinois prompted legislation increasing penalties for aggravated assault of a DCFS worker, as well as another measure that would provide caseworkers with pepper spray for personal protection.

“History has already given us a picture of what happens when we do nothing,” Rep. Carol Ammons (D-Champaign) said.

“Doing nothing is not a solution to the Department of Children and Family Services,” Ammons continued. “Putting out nice press release won’t do it, and giving mace ain’t going to fix it and making more penalties to people will not solve this problem.”

Ammons is a former DCFS caseworker. she argued the agency needs bigger reforms that fully transform the agency. She said she would join her Republican colleagues and call on Gov. J.B. Pritzker to reform the agency.

The pepper spray bill passed both chambers earlier this week and now await the governor’s signature. The aggravated battery bill is waiting on final approval in the house. There is no immediate, widespread reform planed for the agency as a whole.

In terms of child care, Reick called on the department to put children in better situations. Reick argued the problem has spanned multiple directors, governors and administrations. He believed it’s up to the General Assembly to fix the problem. He said if it takes a “redo” of the organization, he thinks it’s what the GA should do.

On the other side, Ammons called for families to be supported instead of separated by the department. She argued some problems that alert DCFS can be solved by helping parents find work or supporting them in other ways instead of separating the families. She also called out the racially unequitable areas of the department, saying that African American children are often separated from their families for longer.

She did agree the department needs transformative change, but wants the department to be broken up and regionally focused instead of statewide.

On the DCFS side, they have previously argued they are attempting to build the department back after the budget impasse of the previous administration. They also implement some family-oriented programs that try to support parents in hopes they will not need to utilize the department once problems of poverty, food insecurity, etc., are solved.

Ammons said she has tried making contact with Smith, but said he was not responsive.

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