SPRINGFIELD (AP) — Two Democratic lawmakers involved in overseeing the troubled Illinois Department of Children and Family Services say the agency faces "horrendous" challenges in the year ahead as officials deal with yet another search for a new child-welfare chief, anticipated budget cuts and election year politics.
Officials fear that efforts to help the agency could suffer if a replacement is not quickly found for recently resigned Arthur Bishop, the fourth chief to head the agency in less than a year's time, or if a change in governor after November's election means yet another leadership shift.
State Sen. Julie Morrison, a Deerfield Democrat who chaired a series of hearings last fall in response to a rash of problems at the agency, says the leadership void puts any future reforms on hold.
"It's hard to get traction when you don't have anybody that's really leading this," Morrison said. She said she is calling on Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn to "find someone as soon as humanly possible."
Bishop resigned last month after reports surfaced about previous legal problems. The 61-year-old was accused of stealing more than $9,000 from clients at a Chicago social-services agency who thought Bishop was helping them get their driver's licenses back after drunken-driving convictions. He later said he was wrongly accused and made the "agonizing" decision to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge to end the strain on his family.
He said he was stepping down to avoid becoming a distraction for Quinn, who is in the midst of a re-election campaign.
The governor's office says it has launched a nationwide search for a replacement. But Morrison fears the search, and any replacement's longevity, could be complicated by the election. Four Republicans — state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard, Winnetka businessman Bruce Rauner, and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford — are vying in the March 18 primary to be the party's nominee to unseat Quinn.
Meanwhile, Greg Harris, chairman of the House appropriations committee for human resources, told The Associated Press that he expects DCFS to see a roughly 15 percent dip in funding if the state's temporary income tax increase expires as planned, beginning next January. The rollback is expected to lead to an overall $1.5 billion drop in annual state revenue.
Some Democrats are building the case for the hike to be extended while many Republicans are calling for it to expire.
The leadership and funding challenges come at a particularly bad time for DCFS, following reports of a spike in child deaths and a recent state audit that found that the agency was failing to initiate investigations within a timely manner, among other problems.
"There's a horrendous challenge that looms over the agency, that the new director is going to be faced with," said Harris, a Chicago Democrat. "Regardless of what reforms we want to have, they're going to be nearly impossible."
Quinn spokeswoman Grant Klinzman said Friday that the governor's office is "committed" to finding strong leadership for the agency. He described acting director Bobbie Gregg, an attorney and social worker, as "well suited to lead the agency" in the interim.
"We are incredibly hopeful that a director will be found that will bring stability to the department and will continue to move our mission forward," said DCFS spokeswoman Karen Hawkins.
Morrison said that, as the search continues, she plans to continue pushing for reforms, including a piece of legislation that requires the state to name "mandated reporters" of child abuse and neglect, such as daycare workers, to be re-trained every few years.
"This is a good year for us to be planning to put things in place that don't require funding," she said. "Getting everyone on the same page."