DCFS, under a new leader and following years of criticism, seeks a new wave of workers

Kristina Permitin traveled 90 miles from Roscoe, Illinois, to a job fair in a spacious basketball gymnasium on Chicago’s West Side to see what working at the state’s child welfare agency was all about.

Having studied health sciences at Northern Illinois University, she said she’s willing to merely get her foot in the door at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, perhaps starting with an office job to work her way up to possibly investigating cases of kids being abused or neglected.

“I know there’s a lot of problems in our society and not only with children, but in general,” Permitin said. “And I feel like I have this … energy and knowledge to help them to solve their problems.”

Permitin was among a couple hundred people who attended the employment expo at the Rusu-McCartin Boys & Girls Club to check out opportunities from DCFS and other government agencies, including the Illinois State Police, Chicago Fire Department and U.S. Postal Service.

The hiring event comes at a significant time for DCFS, which has been regularly criticized from government watchdogs to elected officials. In the last five years, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has been a regular target of that criticism as the agency he oversees was accused of poorly handling some of its investigations and failing to get troubled youths into the right places quickly.

It also comes as the governor seeks to put more investment into the state’s historically troubled child welfare agency. On the day of Pritzker’s annual State of the State and budget address before the Illinois General Assembly last month, the governor’s office proposed additional funding of more than $76 million for the upcoming fiscal year beginning July 1, which includes funding for 392 more workers to support DCFS caseloads.

About three hours into the event on Friday, DCFS chief of staff Jassen Strokosch said he’d spoken in the past to people with teaching, law enforcement and social work backgrounds who didn’t feel fulfilled in their work and wanted to change careers into the child welfare field to fill that void.

“There’s something about doing this work where folks are just not feeling like they’re having the impact in other industries and they’re being drawn to child welfare as a way to really change the lives of children and families,” Strokosch said.

In the last two decades, DCFS has seen massive turnover and controversy, going through more than a dozen directors. It’s a job referred to by many Springfield insiders as one of the toughest in state government.

When Marc Smith stepped down earlier this year after nearly five years as head of the agency, his tumultuous tenure included a scathing report from the state’s auditor general — released last year — that cited numerous problems at DCFS, including significant delays in reporting abuse and neglect cases to local prosecutors, other state agencies and school officials.

Illinois Department of Children and Family Services recruiter Stanisha Lang, left, talks to job seeker Angela Zambrano at a job fair at the Rusu-McCartin Boys & Girls Club in Chicago on March 29, 2024. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)
Illinois Department of Children and Family Services recruiter Stanisha Lang, left, talks to job seeker Angela Zambrano at a job fair at the Rusu-McCartin Boys & Girls Club in Chicago on March 29, 2024. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)

Pritzker has since appointed Heidi Mueller, his former head of the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice, as Smith’s replacement. In a brief interview with the Tribune earlier this month, Mueller noted the importance of the governor’s proposed $100 million in capital grants to increase the capacity of adequate housing for youths.

“For me, it’s very important to say that we’re not talking about big warehouses,” Mueller said. “We’re not talking about shoving kids in a bed. We’re talking about creating the sorts of places that kids can really thrive, and where they’re treated the way I would want my own child treated.”

At Friday’s event, many attendees with different levels of experience, including a high school student, stopped by the DCFS table to talk with volunteers about a possible career with the agency.

Christine Holt brought her resume to the event and talked to one of the volunteers, who told her about what it takes to be an investigator or caseworker.

“The idea that a person could use their career time and their skills and their energy to ensure safety is definitely something that’s appealing to me as someone who’s worked with kids myself for many, many years,” said Holt, who leads a team of children’s care workers for a church.

Axandria Mason said she worked before in a residential treatment facility, helping teenage boys who were wards of the state, and also at Catholic Charities assisting homeless mothers and babies. She said she’s been interested in working for DCFS for a year.

“You have to be personable and relating to people, have empathy for those, the clients in your care,” Mason said. “I feel like I’ve gained deeper connections with people, and (am) able to understand the traumas and the type of effects it’s having on their personal lives.”

Kelly McCaskill said she retired in 2019 after working in the Cook County Health system and, before that, she worked as a child welfare specialist for a private agency, where her duties included monitoring children for court cases and handling paperwork related to adoptions.

“I just feel like I still have something to give, and so, why should my skill set remain dormant?” McCaskill said. “We have to protect the next generation because we don’t want them to engage in a lot of (bad) behavior, because we know that their past is definitely going to affect their future as future husbands, wives, parents.”

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