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Youth justice expert Heidi Mueller will head up embattled Illinois DCFS

Heidi Mueller, former director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, has been named the new director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
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Heidi Mueller, former director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, has been named the new director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday named Heidi Mueller — a child welfare and juvenile justice expert — as head of the state’s embattled Department of Children and Family Services.

Mueller, who has served as director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice since 2016, was selected after a national search. She will take the reins of the scandal-plagued agency beginning February 1, according to the governor’s office.

In 2020, Mueller launched the 21st Century Illinois Transformation Plan, which aimed to reshape the way youth are cared for in the juvenile justice system.

Mueller will become the agency’s 13th director in 14 years.

“The work Director Mueller has done at the Department of Juvenile Justice over the last several years has been transformative for the juvenile justice system in Illinois, and I am thrilled that she will bring her unique experience and talents to DCFS,” Pritzker said in a statement.

“Heidi’s care and compassion for the most at-risk young people in our state and her exceptional leadership are hallmarks of her career,” Pritzker added, “and I know that her passion and expertise will be a significant asset as we continue to improve our state’s child welfare system.”

Marc Smith, who announced his resignation as director last year after serving since 2019, is remaining in his role through January “to ensure a smooth transition,” the governor’s office stated. DCFS staffers on Monday received an email notifying them that Smith would be remaining in his role until the new director began.

Smith’s resignation, announced in a call with staffers, came a week after a report from the Illinois auditor general found 33 instances of noncompliance, including that the department did not immediately report to state’s attorneys 28% of child abuse and neglect reports involving children who had tested positive for a controlled substance.

Smith’s controversial tenure included receiving multiple contempt citations from a Cook County judge last year for failing to place children under the care of the agency. But an appellate court panel in November 2022 ruled that the judge had abused his discretion with the findings against Smith, overturning 10 of them.

In the final days of December, DCFS released an annual report which revealed even more problems, including that in the last fiscal year, 218 children stayed for 30 days or more in what were supposed to be emergency, short-term placements. Of these children, 36.24% stayed in the temporary placements for more than four months — and the average age for the children was 11 years old.

Tina Sfondeles is the chief political reporter, covering all levels of government and politics with a special focus on the Illinois General Assembly, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration and statewide and federal elections.
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