The longtime top watchdog for Illinois’ troubled child-welfare system — who’s been highly critical of the agency’s former director leading up to his resignation amid a corruption scandal last year — is now being replaced by Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Gov. Bruce Rauner announced last week he’s appointing a replacement to Denise Kane, who was the first-ever inspector general for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. […]
Kane’s colleagues in the child welfare system are calling her tenure as “effective,” “fearless,” and “tenacious.”
The change in leadership comes after Kane published what will be her final annual report of DCFS, which included a biting critique of former Director George Sheldon’s leadership. Sheldon resigned last year under the cloud of a corruption investigation by Kane’s office into contracting and hiring. He was also facing questions about the death of 17-month-old Semaj Crosby, whose family had repeatedly been investigated by DCFS before her body was found under a couch in her Joliet home.
In the same report, Kane wrote that around the same time she was investigating Sheldon, DCFS contended she was overstepping her boundaries. […]
When asked if Kane’s biting report played a role in Rauner replacing her as DCFS’ watchdog, Rauner spokeswoman Rachel Bold responded, “It did not.” Kane’s term expired this year, after she served for governors from both parties over five administrations.
* I checked in with Ben Wolf, a top attorney with the Illinois ACLU who has been working on the DCFS problem for years. Wolf is quoted in the WBEZ story saying nice things about former IG Kane, but I was curious what he thought about this new turn of events.
“The more we learn about this decision, the more troubled we are,” Wolf said. Kane had a “record of independence and courage,” but the Rauner administration “replaced her with somebody who appears to be an insider,” Wolf said.
“That’s not the kind of background that we would endorse for an inspector general at this very troubled agency.”
The worry, as I take it, is that the Rauner administration will “solve” some of DCFS’ problems by appointing somebody who won’t be as aggressive.
Wolf went on to point out that Kane’s replacement, Meryl Paniak, had been an ethics officer at DCFS. If she was in that post during DCFS’ recent troubles with its former director’s “contracting practices,” he said, “that would only add to our concerns.”
Paniak was Chief Counsel in the Office of Legislative Affairs at DCFS before being upgraded to IG.
However, in her defense, Paniak has an MSW in social work and served as an attorney for the Cook County Office of the Public Guardian starting way back in 1992.
*** UPDATE *** From Kyle Hillman at the National Association of Social Workers, Illinois Chapter…
I think the timing, regarding the switch at DCFS, should give everyone pause – however, I would caution people from piling on Meryl Paniak. Our work with Paniak has been nothing but professional throughout the years. She is a strong advocate for the children in DCFS with an educational background that could bring a fresh look at oversight. She is hardly a Bruce Rauner insider and ACLU Illinois would be wise to keep their criticism toward the action of Kane’s removal rather than an unfair character hit against someone who has spent her career working to fight for children in state care. At minimum give the appointee an opportunity to prove her independence and professionalism in the job.