A bill submitted Thursday by state Rep. Steve Reick would create a county-controlled, state-funded agency to replace the Department of Children and Family Services’ McHenry County office.
Reick spoke at a news conference Friday about the death of Crystal Lake’s AJ Freund, whose parents are accused of beating the 5-year-old to death in April. Now Reick, R-Woodstock, is proposing a bill that he has dubbed “AJ’s Law” in an effort to achieve more local control over child welfare in McHenry County.
“I am not here to throw DCFS under the bus,” Reick said. “It is an absolutely thankless job that these folks do, but the fact remains that I think the way to do it better is to do it on a community basis.”
Reick hadn’t spoken to Illinois DCFS Acting Director Marc Smith or Gov. JB Pritzker about the bill as of Friday morning. He’s hopeful Pritzker will be open-minded when the conversation happens.
“The fact is that on this issue I think the governor means well, and I think he wants to fix this problem,” Reick said. “So to that extent, I’m willing to work with him any which way that I can.”
Under AJ’s Law, county employees would be responsible for the duties previously carried out by the state’s DCFS agency. The County Board chairman would appoint an executive director to head the local DCFS office with approval from the County Board, Reick said.
Although caseworkers and investigators would be county employees, funding would continue to come from the state’s DCFS budget, Reick said.
“We’re going to show the rest of the state, with any luck at all, this is how you run child welfare,” Reick said. “And you know something? We’re going to have to triage where state resources need to be allocated. This, I believe, is one of them.”
Reick isn’t alone in his call for a more locally controlled DCFS office. McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally has advocated for the same. In a letter he mailed last year to DCFS’ Springfield office, Kenneally argued that the responsibility for protecting children in the community should fall to the community.
Kenneally wasn’t available for comment Friday. McHenry County Assistant State’s Attorney Dan Wilbrandt, however, said the prosecutor’s office is excited about Reick’s bill.
“Having a local agency that is responsible and accountable to the McHenry County Board and the McHenry County government – that helps us communicate better locally,” Wilbrandt said.
Reick’s vision for the McHenry County DCFS office includes a staff of 12 to 15 investigators who would work hand-in-hand with local prosecutors, law enforcement and other county resources, including the Child Advocacy Center.
“This is a framework, and I want to be clear that this framework involves primarily the investigatory, service-providing functions of the county,” Reick said. “It’s not enough to fix the [DCFS] hotline.
“The hotline has problems. They need to be fixed at the state level. It doesn’t fix Intact Family Services. That needs to be fixed statewide. There has to be accountability there.”