New Illinois DCFS director Heidi Mueller faces challenges, opportunities

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has recently been under scrutiny, most notably on Thursday when a former worker was sentenced to jail time for involvement in the AJ Freund case.

The incident occurred under the leadership of a former DCFS director. However, as of February 1, 2024, the agency has a new director, Heidi Mueller.

"I was really scared when I took this job," Mueller said. "I wasn't sure what to expect and, you know, I've seen headlines and part of the reason I wanted to take the job was because I really wanted to be part of the solution."

Mueller, who has a background in social work and law, previously served as the Director of the Department of Juvenile Justice for seven years.

"Working with kids and families has been a life's mission. It's all I've ever wanted to do. It's really all I've ever done," said Mueller.

She noted that DCFS currently cares for about 24,000 children and employs 3,530 staff members, marking a nearly 30 percent increase in four years. However, Mueller aims to further increase staffing.

"We don't have enough resources to serve kids and families the way they deserve," she said.

For fiscal year 2025, Mueller hopes to increase staffing to 4,000 employees, a level not seen in 20 years. The agency has ramped up employment practices, including on-the-spot hiring, and is overhauling outdated systems to reduce paperwork. Additionally, they are equipping caseworkers with the SAFE model, an evidence-based decision-making tool used successfully in over 20 jurisdictions nationwide.

"It really equips them with this guided decision-making tool that's been in place in over 20 jurisdictions around the country and been successful, and it helps them in those incredibly difficult middle-of-the-night crisis moments," Mueller explained.

Funding has also seen an increase, with DCFS receiving $25 million in capital funds last year, $30 million this year, and $100 million projected for 2025.

"We are not talking about building big warehouses for kids and just shoving a kid into a bed. We are talking about small home-like, you know, really specialized kind of treatment for the kids that we have in our care," Mueller said. "Ultimately, we have the goal of kids being able to step down from that treatment into homes, because that's where our kids want to be."

Mueller is particularly focused on a small percentage of children with high needs, such as those with acute psychiatric or complex medical conditions, or those on the autistic spectrum, ensuring they receive a higher level of care.

DCFS has also been assisting the migrant community in Chicago, handling 17 cases involving migrant youth needing temporary placement as of last month.

All these efforts, from increasing staffing to aiding migrant families, aim to support every child DCFS encounters. However, Mueller acknowledges the complexity of the work.

"We're asking human beings to sort of see into the future in an environment where they themselves may feel nervous, threatened, scared, and the decision they make they know is going to impact that child in that family for the rest of their lives," she said.

One of the most recognizable cases in recent years is the death of AJ Freund, a five-year-old boy from Crystal Lake who was beaten to death by his mother in 2019. His father was imprisoned for burying the boy's body. Two DCFS employees were accused of ignoring warning signs of abuse.

"When we look at a situation like AJ Freund or Semaj Crosby, we think that the answer is always, we just need to take more kids away and the reality is, every single time we do that, we are causing trauma every single time," Mueller said. "So, it is always a balance of, you know, how, how do I make a decision that is, you know, is the right decision for this child in this moment?"


Former DCFS worker handling AJ Freund case sentenced to 6 months in jail

A former investigator for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services who was found guilty of child endangerment in the death of 5-year-old AJ Freund was sentenced Thursday to six months in jail.

Mueller emphasized that DCFS’s role extends beyond responding to reports of abuse and neglect; they are also there to support families through education, resources, and items like safe cribs and gun locks.

Mueller is the 10th DCFS director in ten years, but hopes to have a lasting tenure.

"I feel like most of the people you talk to who stick around in this work, they do it because it is a mission for them. It is a life's work," she said.

She encourages community involvement in child welfare, noting that child abuse prevention starts with supporting mental health services, better wages, affordable housing, and simply paying attention.

"It's as simple as sometimes seeing a neighbor who needs some extra help and giving them some extra help," Mueller said. "It's small things like that, that, you know, it's sort of being the village if you can."

To report neglect or abuse, call the Illinois DCFS hotline at 1-800-25-ABUSE (800-252-2873).