ILLINOIS — The ACLU of Illinois has fought legal battles with the Department of Children and Family Services dating back 30 years and believes stopping future Ta’Naja Barnes-type tragedies needs a bold new leadership vision at the state agency.
The ACLU said taking this approach has worked before: A consent decree stemming from a lawsuit it filed against DCFS in the 1980s lead to leadership and organizational improvements in the agency that made a huge difference.
“We went from having around 50,000 kids in care to around 16,000, so we had a lot of kids who were placed in good permanent homes,” said ACLU Staff Attorney Claire Stewart, speaking from her Chicago office. “The level of safety went up for a lot of these kids.”
But Stewart said things had started to slip at DCFS in more recent years. In 2009, she said, a proposal to cut its budget in half and required more legal action to stop. Other problems have proven less easy to treat: DCFS has had eight directors in the past five years, and Stewart said this revolving door has created much of the current problems of lack of direction and leadership.
“There has to be someone at the helm directing the department who is willing to acknowledge the kind of problems and kinds of things that lead to a tragedy like the death of Ta’Naja Barnes,” she said.
Police say Ta’Naja, 2, of Decatur, was found unresponsive, wrapped in a urine-soaked blanket in an unheated room, on Feb. 11. Her mother, Twanka L. Davis, 21, and Davis' boyfriend, Anthony Myers, 25, have been charged with first-degree murder and endangering the life and health of a child through starvation and neglect. Davis has pleaded not guilty; Myers has yet to enter a plea.
Stewart said the ACLU doesn’t believe the current interim director, Debra Dyer-Webster, who has only been in the post for less than a month, is the person for the job. She has been in the agency for more than 27 years.
Dyer-Webster during a state House committee hearing on the death said that "over the long term, it's clear we have a lot more work to do."
Labor officials have also pointed to staff shortages in the department.
The ACLU wants new blood with a commitment to stick around and rebuild DCFS with a fresh sense of purpose — and a strengthened budget to match — that will keep kids safe.
“We need someone who is willing to put the resources where they are needed to actually provide the attention and care all child care cases need,” Stewart said.