Editorial Roundup: Illinois

Chicago Tribune. May 13, 2022.

Editorial: For the sake of Ta’Naja Barnes, Gov. Pritzker must take a hard look at DCFS leadership

Illinois was supposed to learn its lesson from the brief, tragic life of Ta’Naja Barnes. She was just 2 years old when she was found dead on Feb. 11, 2019, in her mother’s unheated Decatur home — starved, dehydrated and wrapped in a urine-soaked blanket.

Before Ta’Naja’s death, the state’s troubled child welfare agency, the Department of Children and Family Services, had put the toddler in foster care following abuse allegations made against her mother and the mother’s boyfriend. But a court order put Ta’Naja back in her mother’s home. The mother and boyfriend were later convicted of Ta’Naja’s murder.

The tragedy led to the passage of legislation, renamed in 2021 Ta’Naja’s Law, requiring DCFS to ensure and certify that when a court remands a child back into the custody of a parent or guardian, the home is a safe environment for that child. The agency must complete a “Home Safety Checklist” and that check must be done before the child is returned home, five days after the child arrives, and every month afterward until the youth’s child welfare case is closed.

A new audit came out last week assessing DCFS’ performance in carrying out Ta’Naja’s Law. The results are maddening, but hardly surprising.

Illinois Auditor General Frank Mautino found that DCFS failed to conduct a Home Safety Checklist in 98% of a sample group of cases he examined. In 58% of cases Mautino checked, the agency also failed to provide follow-up services for children within the required six-month time frame after they had left DCFS care. The agency also didn’t ensure children in DCFS care were getting medical checkups and immunizations, Mautino found.

Mautino’s findings aren’t surprising because for decades DCFS has consistently faltered in its mission of caring for Illinois’ most vulnerable — children often subjected to unconscionable levels of abuse, neglect and squalor. Governors have come and gone, a bevy of DCFS directors have been hired and fired, and still, year after year, the agency struggles to fix what’s wrong.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker appointed DCFS’ current director, Marc Smith, in 2019. Smith’s stewardship has fallen far short of what the agency and the children under its care need. In recent months, Smith has been held in contempt of court nine times for failing to ensure that DCFS finds suitable placements for children in its care, the Tribune recently reported.

Some of those contempt findings involved children languishing in psychiatric facilities or temporary shelters for months because the agency didn’t have the capacity to place the children in therapeutic foster homes and group homes, where they could get proper care. “It’s hard to think of anything that says to a child, ‘You don’t matter,’ more than being locked up for months on end in a psychiatric hospital,” Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert told us in January.

Pritzker has touted pouring an extra $100 million into DCFS’ budget yearly, as well as an additional $250 million in the budget year that begins in July. But money alone will not fix what’s wrong at DCFS. At an Illinois House Human Services Appropriations Committee hearing in March in which Smith appeared, state Rep. Rita Mayfield, a Waukegan Democrat, didn’t mince words about his leadership.

“Every year you guys come back and ask for more money,” she said. “You tell us the same stories that you’re going to hire more case managers. You’re going to address these issues and nothing happens. Your budget is one of the largest budgets in the state of Illinois, and we’re just not getting our money’s worth.”

Mayfield was spot on. Massive tranches of cash aren’t needed for DCFS to ensure that a child remanded back to the custody of a parent returns to safe, nurturing environment, or to complete the mandated Home Safety Checklists that assess whether that has happened.

One place where extra money can indeed help is in adding enough therapeutic foster and group home beds to the agency’s system so that children don’t have to spend months on end in psychiatric facilities long after its medically necessary. That would also save the agency the humiliation of getting hit with more contempt of court charges.

The agency has made progress on some fronts in the last few years. Since Pritzker became governor, Springfield has set aside funding for 300 extra jobs at DCFS, and the next budget includes funding for 360 new positions. And, the agency has made headway reducing the backlog of people who’ve called into the DCFS hotline. Several years ago, the backlog created circumstances in which callers trying to report an urgent case of abuse or neglect would have to leave a message and wait several days for a callback.

But such progress is deeply overshadowed by the agency’s failures. Remedying DCFS requires some strong consideration by Pritzker about whether Smith should depart. With an agency as troubled as DCFS, sound, mission-driven leadership is paramount. DCFS’ travails over the last few years raise profound questions about Smith at the helm.

At the very least, Pritzker must weigh these questions, and carve out the right path for the agency, and the children under its care.

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Chicago Sun-Times. May 12, 2022.

Editorial: Anti-Semitism, as lawmakers say in letter, has no place in public discourse

Public figures should discuss issues without resorting to ‘hate-filled rants and accusations.’

Everyone, particularly in these times of discord, should treat others fairly and with respect.

So-called influencers especially should strive to do so.

We say this after 11 state lawmakers wrote a letter this week to Kari Steele, president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, asking her to repudiate remarks by her husband, Maze Jackson. The letter writers called the remarks “hate-filled rants and accusations,” some of which were anti-Semitic.

Jackson is a podcaster who has a YouTube channel and a former WBGX-AM and WVON-AM host. He also has a real estate lobbying firm, the Intelligence Group. Steele is running for Cook County assessor.

The lawmakers’ letter cites an April 13 incident in which Jackson referred on his show to a “Jewish organization” that he alleged “controls” the affordable housing activists who are part of the Chicago Housing Initiative, a coalition of groups working to expand the supply of affordable housing.

Jackson also did not correct his co-host DJ Riis when Riis said, “I’m not voting for JB, he’s a Jew. He don’t know anything.”

In addition, Jackson, according to the letter, targeted media strategist Joanna Klonsky, claiming she was behind a Better Government Association report that he was paid $417,500 to lobby his longtime friend and ally Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), who eventually changed his position to favor Jackson’s client. On his program, Jackson held up Klonsky’s photo and said, “So as you know, they quick to exploit us. They quick to exploit us.”

On Thursday, Jackson said, in part: “I take full responsibility for the words I have said and that were said by others on my show. I recognize that they were wrong, and I sincerely apologize for the pain they have caused the Jewish community.”

Also on Thursday, Steele said, “I unequivocally reject any hateful rhetoric and apologize for the comments made on my husband’s show and the hurt they caused the Jewish community. As a woman of faith, I believe that we must respect everyone’s religion and faith.”

Those were welcome words.

Chicago has a lot of important issues to debate. But, please, all of us, let’s do so without casting hurtful and unnecessary aspersions.

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Champaign News-Gazette. May 11, 2022.

Editorial: Illinois Dems want to turn the calendar forward

The state Democratic Party last week urged the Democratic National Committee to let Illinois host one of the first five presidential primaries in 2024.

If you’re excited about Illinois holding its primary election in late June this year — a time when it isn’t snowing, blowing and dark — be prepared to be disappointed in 2024. The Democratic Party of Illinois wants to move that year’s primary not just back to March, but even earlier.

State Democratic leaders, including U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Chicago, who is chairwoman, sent a letter to the Democratic National Committee urging it to consider Illinois for one of the “pre-window” primary dates that now include New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

“Democrats have to compete and win in the Midwest to win nationally,” Kelly said in her letter to DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison. “Illinois represents a true test of what presidential candidates will face across the nation, and as an early primary state, Illinois can help strengthen the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates in the primary and general elections.”

That may be true, but for voters in Illinois — the people who would be making the decision on those candidates — the early primary date would be another inconvenience imposed by the powers that be so that they might become kingmakers. Illinois’ 2020 primary was in March, the 2022 primary will be on June 28 and the 2024 primary could be in February.

And because Democrats run every aspect of state government, including the choice of election dates, Republican candidates and their voters would be bound by the early primary, too. They were in 2008 when Democrats moved the primary to Feb. 5 to help favorite son Barack Obama win the party’s presidential nomination.

It’s worth noting that primary elections really are run by the political parties as a way for them to select their candidates. That’s why a voter must choose a Republican or Democratic ballot, not both. And undoubtedly, there are fervent Democrats who would like a stronger voice in choosing their party’s presidential candidate next year.

But the reality is that only TV station owners — who could make even more money on presidential candidate commercials in 2024 than they’re making this year in the gubernatorial election — are really keen on a wintry Illinois primary.

That cost — particularly in the expensive Chicago and St. Louis markets — could be the reason Illinois doesn’t get an early primary. Many candidates wouldn’t want to see their resources depleted so early in the race on one large state. So consider Illinois’ bid for an early primary a long shot.

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