SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) – Leaders from the Department of Children and Family Services faced intense grilling Tuesday from a group of bipartisan lawmakers at an audit legislation hearing. 

The hearing was based on an audit on child safety ordered by the state legislature back in 2019 and released in May. Marc Smith, DCFS director, had to answer questions from the audit findings.

A big focus for the legislators was the accountability for home check-ins for children the department is considering to return to a parent. 

The home check-ins were designed after the 2019 death of 2-year-old Decatur child Ta’Naja Barnes to make sure DCFS. 

Barnes was removed from her mother’s home by DCFS before the agency remanded her. Barnes later died of neglect 4 months later. Her mother and mother’s boyfriend were convicted for Barnes’s murder, and lawmakers renamed a DCFS accountability law in her honor.

The audit found that out of 195 home-safety checklists, only three were completed. 

Smith said it’s because child welfare crews weren’t able to go to homes during the height of the pandemic. 

“There were times where our staff, since they were not able to go into home during the pandemic, fail to complete the specific form while still addressing safety,” Smith said. 

The auditor general did toss out 105 cases of the original sample of 300 because they were from March 2020 to June 2020 where COVID-19 restrictions prevented DCFS workers from completing them.   

 Lawmakers also worried about being behind on healthcare services like vaccines and general doctor appointments.   

 Children in DCFS care are required to have yearly physical, vision, dental, and hearing check-ups. According to the audit, 18% of children missed their physical appointments, as well as 14% of vision appointments, 56% of hearing exams and 88% dental exams. 

The audit additionally found that children in DCFS’s care were up-to-date on their vaccines except for some influenza shots, but their medical records were not kept in the right system, leading to initial results such as finding a child with records showing 41 vaccinations.

Smith attributes the redundant vaccine records to the audit taking place during a transition from public healthcare to private for kids in the agency.  

“Because we were in a system in which multiple parties would try to data enter information, we had a lot of challenges saying exactly what was the immunization record for our kids,”  Smith said.

Questions were also brought up at employment at the department, with the audit finding 21% of positions vacant. 

Smith defended the number of vacant positions, saying it has gotten better during a nationwide hiring shortage.  

“We have brought in a high level of expertise to continue to help us grow and hire staff,” Smith said. “And we are bearing fruit from that.”

Lawmakers fear workers at the department are buckling from a massive workload.

“I just think DCFS is an agency that has bit off more than it can chew,” Sen. Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet) said. 

Despite all of this, DCFS director Marc Smith remained positive, at one point calling his department “one of the best child-welfare systems in the country.”

Lawmakers weren’t sold on Smith’s optimism. 

 “Why is it, [Smith], that DCFS can’t solve these problems or look at these problems internally?” Rep. Tony McCombie (R-Sterling) said. “Why does it take the Auditor General to conduct these audits every couple of years and call them out?”

Governor candidates respond

 Both candidates for governors have commented on the hearing. 

 At a news conference outside the DCFS headquarters on Tuesday, Republican Darren Bailey said Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker’s mishandling of DCFS is a ‘fireable offense’. 

 “The pattern of neglect and mismanagement has gone beyond a spoiled rich kid throwing a temper tantrum,” Bailey said. “His inability to solve these problems and come to work as it was is wasting taxpayer money, killing jobs and costing lives.”

 Pritzker’s campaign fired back at Bailey for never voting for one of Pritzker’s budgets, which increased funding for the department. Most Republican lawmakers have not voted for a state budget under Pritzker.     

“[Bailey] cannot be allowed to continue to hypocritically grandstand when it’s politically convenient after years of voting against the very programs he now claims to care about,” Eliza Glezer, JB for Governor press secretary, said.