New DCFS acting director defends agency amid recent child deaths

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New acting director of the Illinois Child and Family Services Department is speaking out for the first time about recent deaths involving children the agency was monitoring.

Marc Smith is the 15th DCFS director in the last 16 years. He was selected by Governor JB Pritzker in late March, just weeks before the beating death of AJ Freund.

"Your initial feeling is heartbreak,” Smith said.

Reacting to the recent and very public deaths of children in DCFS care -- like AJ, Ja'Hir Gibbons, Ta'Naja Barnes and Semaj Crosby -- Smith believes changes happening right now within the agency will make it better.

When Smith was asked if he thinks DCFS’ carelessness led to AJ’s death, Smith would not give a yes or no answer.

"Again I don't want to speak directly to one individual case,” he said.

FOX 32 wanted to focus our short time with smith on the death of AJ.

"I don't want to speak directly to any individual case,” Smith said again.

He refused to speak about the case.

Police records show AJ was beaten and forced to take a cold shower for 20 minutes the night of his death. His parents have been charged with his murder and had contact with DCFS more than a dozen times.

"The fact that they were already touched by DCFS and had a relationship means that there was work that we should have did better,” Smith said.

Governor Pritzker ordered University of Chicago researchers to study the agency and make recommendations weeks before AJ’s death. Their report will be made public on Wednesday.

Smith offered additional solutions, starting with cross training between DCFS and its private sector partners.

"We're going to take a step back, we're going to take the energy to retrain all our staff so they understand what the criteria is, what the priorities are and what we look at and how we make decisions based on safety for our families,” Smith said.