Tenacious Illinois child welfare watchdog ousted, replaced by ‘insider’

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Illinois’ child welfare watchdog Denise Kane is described by her colleagues as effective, fearless and tenacious. She has been inspector general of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) for 24 years.

Last week, Gov. Bruce Rauner quietly replaced Kane as inspector general, essentially firing her as of the end of January. There is, inexplicably, no mention of this on the news feed of the governor’s web site, nor is there any information about Kane’s replacement. The moves have received limited media coverage.

Advocates are raising alarm bells over Kane’s sudden replacement, and questioning whether the decision might have been politically motivated.

Kane had just published her annual report, which lacerated the DCFS and its former director, George Sheldon, who resigned last year amid a corruption scandal. Sheldon was also criticized over the death of 17-month-old Semaj Crosby, who died despite numerous DCFS investigations into the family.

Ben Wolf, chief attorney with Illinois ACLU, which has for years been filing lawsuits against the DCFS, is not impressed with the governor’s decision, or with Kane’s replacement.

“The more we learn about this decision, the more troubled we are,” Wolf told the Capitol Fax news agency. He said that Kane had a “record of independence and courage,” but that the Rauner administration “replaced her with somebody who appears to be an insider.” The “insider” in question is Meryl Paniak, who was the chief counsel and ethics officer at DCFS.

In her report, Kane dismissed complaints by the DCFS that the Office of the Inspector General was acting
beyond its statutory authority by carrying out certain investigations.

“It was not,” Kane wrote. “It is no coincidence that this resistance came at a time when the Office of the Inspector General was investigating corruption cases within the former director’s management.”

When asked by local NPR station WBEZ whether the report had anything to do with her ouster, a Rauner spokesperson replied, “It did not.”