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High turnout at Illinois DCFS hiring event spotlights pay difference with Missouri

Potential workers line up to register during a hiring event by Illinois Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS) on Wednesday, March 27, 2024, at Fountains Conference Center in Fairview Heights. The event drew more than 300 people who came to apply for potential work.
Eric Lee
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St. Louis Public Radio
People line up to register during a hiring event by Illinois Department of Children and Family Services on Wednesday at Fountains Conference Center in Fairview Heights. The event drew more than 300 people who came to apply for potential work.

An Illinois Department of Children and Family Services hiring event in Fairview Heights on Wednesday aimed to fill a number of positions in southern Illinois — and drew a crowd of more than 300 applicants.

The Metro East event was one of three on-the-spot hiring events the state agency has done across the state in the last eight months, DCFS officials said. It held one in Bloomington and another in Rockford last June.

“We didn't really know what today would bring,” said Misty Huff, an associate regional administrator for DCFS’s southern region. “When we saw the line out here, we were super pumped and super impressed.”

Misty Huff, the Southern Region Associate Regional Administrator of the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS), talks during a media interview during a hiring event hosted by DCFS on Wednesday, March 27, 2024, at Fountains Conference Center in Fairview Heights. The event drew over 500 people who came to apply for potential work.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Misty Huff, the Southern Region Associate Regional Administrator of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, talks during a media interview at a hiring event hosted by Illinois' DCFS on Wednesday in Fairview Heights.

On Wednesday, DCFS sought largely what are known as permanency and investigative positions for openings in Belleville, Collinsville, East St. Louis and a number of other locations farther south and east.

The Springfield-based agency responsible for protecting Illinois children who’ve been abused or neglected said it made 123 conditional job offers in Fairview Heights. It will await the results of background checks on those offers, officials said.

Permanency positions work closely with children who’ve been separated from their birth families with the goal of finding the child a permanent home — either with the birth parents or somewhere else. Investigation positions make the determination on whether or not a child has been abused or neglected.

These two tend to be the toughest positions to fill and have the most openings, DCFS chief of staff Jassen Strokosch said.

Despite workforce shortages across nearly all industries in the past couple of years, Strokosch said the southern Illinois region tends not to have hiring problems as pressing as other parts of the state.

“There's times when we have no vacancies in southern Illinois in these roles,” Strokosch said.

Jassen Strokosch, chief of staff of the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS), poses for a portrait during a hiring event hosted by DCFS on Wednesday, March 27, 2024, at Fountains Conference Center in Fairview Heights. The event drew over 500 people who came to apply for potential work.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Jassen Strokosch, chief of staff at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, on Wednesday in Fairview Heights.

There are a couple of reasons this part of the state performs better, he said. First, there’s less competition in southern Illinois, which is largely rural. And the regional office has a strong work culture with a number of seasoned employees.

Neighboring Missouri has struggled with retaining its workforce in the last couple of years. St. Louis Public Radio reported in September that the Missouri Children’s Division had 16 investigators working in the office that covers St. Louis and St. Louis County. It should have 60, officials said.

The lack of employees caused the office’s caseload to balloon to more than 6,000.

Last month, Missouri Children’s Division Director Darrell Missey said the agency was close to reaching its goal of 60 investigators. The backlog hadn’t dropped, however.

Some Missouri lawmakers said starting pay for investigators is a key issue. In Missouri, the starting salary stands around $43,000.

On the east side of the Mississippi River, starting pay for investigators sits at $72,000.

“We think that absolutely contributes to our ability to have good turnout with events like this,” Strokosch said.

Shelby Wendell, 32, of Carbondale, left, speaks with Jessalyn Jackson, 39, of Carbondale, as they wait for a background verification during a hiring event by Illinois Department of Children & Family Services on Wednesday at Fountains Conference Center in Fairview Heights. The event drew over 500 people who came to apply for potential work.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Shelby Wendell, 32, left, speaks with Jessalyn Jackson, 39, both of Carbondale, as they wait for a background verification during a hiring event by the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services on Wednesday in Fairview Heights.
Gerald Young, 62, of St. Louis, anxiously waits for number to be called during a hiring event by Illinois Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS) on Wednesday, March 27, 2024, at Fountains Conference Center in Fairview Heights. The event drew over 500 people who came to apply for potential work.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Gerald Young, 62, of St. Louis, anxiously waits for his number to be called during a hiring event by the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services in Fairview Heights.

Huff, who helps run the southern region for DCFS, said a number of the offices in her region border other states — like Kentucky or Indiana. She agreed that Illinois’ competitive wages and benefits make a difference.

“When you talk to the people in line, that's what got them here today,” she said.

Illinois DCFS leadership said they’ve also heard from former Missouri employees now working in Illinois who say they feel less overworked and more supported. Children and Family Services keeps its ratio of employees to supervisors at 5 to 1, Strokosch said.

Shelby Wendell, a foster care worker for a private company in Carterville, Illinois, said she applied on Wednesday to an investigations position in Murphysboro.

She’s been doing work equivalent to the permanency positions for the past three years and feels like making a change. Currently, her company that contracts with DCFS doesn’t do investigations.

Wendell, 32, who lives in Carbondale, said she appreciates that a career at DCFS would allow her to travel across the region. Overall, she finds the career rewarding.

“There's cases that are hard and difficult, of course, but I like the challenge,” she said. “I’m someone that has to have a full plate.”

Kandyce Williams, 36, of Cahokia Heights, shows Michael Bernardy, a human resource specialist at Illinois Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS), her confirmation email after receiving a conditional offer during a hiring event hosted by DCFS on Wednesday, March 27, 2024, at Fountains Conference Center in Fairview Heights. The event drew over 500 people who came to apply for potential work.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Kandyce Williams, 36, of Cahokia Heights, shows Michael Bernardy, a human resource specialist at Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, her confirmation email after receiving a conditional job offer on Wednesday in Fairview Heights.

New director at DCFS

Strokosch’s boss, Heidi Mueller, was confirmed by the Illinois Senate last week. Mueller is now the 15th DCFS director in the past two decades.

Her predecessor, Marc Smith, who stepped down at the end of January, led the agency for four years.

Critics had called for his ouster after legislative hearings, contempt citations, a murdered child protection investigator and the highest number of children who died after contact with the agency in 20 years, Capitol News Illinois reported. The legal director of the ACLU of Illinois said Mueller takes over the state agency at a “crucial moment.”

Chief of staff Strokosch said the agency has three immediate goals under the newly minted director.

First, department leaders want to work on their staffing — with hiring events like the one in Fairview Heights.

Kandyce Williams, 36, of Cahokia Heights, shakes hands with Michael Bernardy, a human resource specialist at Illinois Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS), after receiving a conditional offer during a hiring event hosted by DCFS on Wednesday, March 27, 2024, at Fountains Conference Center in Fairview Heights. The event drew over 500 people who came to apply for potential work.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Kandyce Williams, 36, of Cahokia Heights, shakes hands with Michael Bernardy, a human resource specialist at Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, after receiving a conditional offer during a hiring event on Wednesday in Fairview Heights.

Second, DCFS is in the process of swapping out 85% of the technology the agency uses to enter and store information regarding its cases. In June, the department will switch over its hotline to a more streamlined system.

“When someone goes to social work school, they never go to have to spend more time taking notes in a computer system,” Strokosch said.

And third, the agency will implement a new evidence-based system, used successfully in states like Arizona and Florida, to make critical decisions throughout the investigation process, he said.

“That will really transform how we make key decisions in the child welfare system in Illinois,” Strokosch said.

Mueller has a history of making transformative changes in state roles, he said. Before taking this job, she ran the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice since 2016. After Mueller gets completely immersed in the nuances of her new role, agency leadership can start to fine-tune more specific goals.

“I imagine we'll have some more once she's gotten through her first 90 days or so and had a chance to really wrap her arms around a big complicated state system like this,” he said.

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.