Illinois juvenile justice chief to take charge of troubled child-services agency


SPRINGFIELD, Illinois (AP) — Gov. JB Pritzker on Wednesday nominated his juvenile justice director to take over the Department of Troubled Children and Family Services.

Heidi Mueller, 49, will replace Mark D. Smith, who has been at the helm since 2019 and has been convicted of contempt of court multiple times for improperly housing youth under the agency’s care. Smith, who announced his resignation in October, will help with the transition until January.

Mueller has been the Director of the Department of Juvenile Justice since 2016. The agency oversees the custody of youth committed to the state by Illinois courts.

“I have seen firsthand the critical importance of a strong and supportive safety net for our state’s most vulnerable residents, and the tragedy that can occur when that net is torn apart,” Mueller said in a statement. He thanked Smith for “bringing real progress to DCFS.”

Mueller, who currently makes $173,250, was selected after a nationwide search. Pritzker said his “transformative” work in juvenile justice has drawn him national attention.

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“Heidi’s care and compassion for the most at-risk youth in our state and her extraordinary leadership are the hallmarks of her career and I know her passion and expertise will be a vital asset as we continue to reform our state’s child welfare system.” Will keep.” Pritzker said in a statement.

Smith, 54, who has a salary of $210,000, began her tenure months into Pritzker’s first term. Democrats released an outside report promising reforms. agency failures This includes the deaths of three children under its care within a few months.

But the department continued to struggle. In 2022, Smith was convicted of contempt of court on several occasions for failing to get appropriate placements for young people in the agency’s care. Pritzker repeatedly blamed his Republican predecessor for eliminating private social-service agencies capable of affordable youth housing during a budget standoff with Democrats in the legislature from 2015 to 2017.

A slight improvement has been seen in the situation. DCFS’s own annual report on placement The release last week revealed that during the fiscal year ending last June, hundreds of children were kept in so-called temporary quarters, in some cases for months, or in psychiatric hospitals beyond the treatment they needed. Or were held in juvenile detention before their release date because DCFS had no place to house them.

“The job of DCFS director is arguably the most difficult and important job in state government. “Heidi Mueller has an excellent reputation as a reform-minded manager and she brings substantial child welfare experience to the job,” said Charles Golbert, Cook County’s public defender, whose office has held lengthy appointments in psychiatric hospitals and juvenile justice. Class-action lawsuits have been filed.” Imprisonment. He urged Mueller to make expanding DCFS’s placement capacity an immediate priority.

Heidi Dellenberg, Interim Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union IllinoisThose who also have legal action against DCFS, Mueller said, should “accept the challenge of finding a safe place to live – preferably with the child’s family members” and turn away from large, institutional settings.

“This is challenging work that requires a leader with vision and a commitment to transformational change,” said Dellenberg.

Robert Vickery, currently deputy director of programs in juvenile justice, will serve as interim director of the agency during the search for Mueller’s permanent replacement.

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