DCFS chief should stay

t’s not hard to find a tragic story and a jarring headline if you look even briefly at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. The department’s mission is to step in when parents fail. What could be more tragic? Just one case mismanaged, one file falling through the cracks or one inept case worker can mean the difference between life and death to a child. When the stakes are that high, there is no margin for error. Having said that, when Gov. Rod Blagojevich decides who should be leading the state child welfare agency, he needs to look beyond the headlines and consider the agency’s history to see how far it has come in the past nine years under the leadership of Director Jess McDonald. First, DCFS is rare. Illinois is one of only three states with a statewide stand-alone agency. In most states, child welfare agencies are run by a municipality or county. Few agencies handle the number of children DCFS sees or the variety of problems they face-geographically, racially, developmentally. In 1994, when McDonald started, DCFS was considered the nation’s worst child welfare system. Now, some of its innovations are considered national models of good care for children. The turnaround is the result of several things, including more state funding and a 1991 federal court consent decree mandating change. But it also is a result of McDonald’s professionalism. He has stabilized an out-of-control 747, using simple, clear management concepts while always keeping children’s needs at the top of his priority list. McDonald offered incentives for moving children out of the system and giving them what they need most: permanent homes. For that, Illinois was awarded in 2000 the Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government. The agency also now requires all caseworkers be trained, whether they work for DCFS or any of its many contract agencies. Last year, Illinois was the first statewide agency to be licensed by the Council on Accreditation-no small feat. The proof of the improvement is in the numbers: • In 1994, there were 40,000 children in the DCFS system-either with foster parents, relatives or in institutions. In 1997, the number climbed to an all-time high-50,735. Today, there are 22,000 wards of the state. • In 1994, 7,000 children were adopted. This year, the number was 41,500. • In 1994, DCFS workers were juggling as many as 72 cases each. Today, the average caseload is 19. • In 1994, most kids spent about four years in “the system.” Today, the average is two years. So, if you believe a bureaucracy is a not a good substitute for mom and dad, that fewer children in system care for less time with more case supervision is better and that more children living in permanent homes is better, you cannot ignore DCFS’ strides. “There are some changes that still need to be made at DCFS, but leadership is not one of them,” says Ben Wolf, American Civil Liberties Union’s associate legal director, who won the 1991 federal case. Keeping the agency moving forward should be No. 1 on the new governor’s list of priorities. To do that, the agency needs to maintain its funding even though it is dealing with fewer children. The kids left in the system tend to be older and they are far more likely to have been both physically and sexually abused. These are children who need mental health care, a costly proposition. The same is true of those adopted children who still need services. Those families need to be able to turn to DCFS for support-something that doesn’t happen now. As Blagojevich looks at the agency, we hope he thinks about continuity-in leadership, care and funding.

Thanks for the magic

When your children enter school, you dream they will be touched by a teacher who brings out the special spark in your little genius. You want them to find the teacher who puts magic into their life, who makes them love to work, who makes them strive to be better. But the reality is that magic doesn’t happen often. When it does come along, it must be celebrated. So, Chicago Parent honors Ellen Holleman and Randy Heite. Holleman, the instrumental teacher at Percy Julian Middle School in Oak Park, is one of just five music teachers to receive this year’s Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation award, which recognizes “extraordinary care, dedication and enthusiasm given to his or her students.” Heite, a kindergarten teacher at Kingsley Elementary School in Evanston, is one of 32 teachers who will receive Disney’s American Teacher Awards this year. The award honors teachers who “construct creative learning environments in which students and teachers alike explore, imagine and engage in a variety of thought-provoking experiences.” Thanks to Holleman and Heite, role models with the rare gift of magic.

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