River Forest resident Bobbie Gregg wanted to mix her leadership skills and experience and put them to beneficial use to help foster children get off to a great start in life as adults.
So she went back to school and earned a master’s degree in social work.
Today the 58-year-old Gregg heads the Department of Children and Family Services and is looking to bring it back to national prominence.
She joined the department as special assistant to the director in February 2013, was named interim director a year later, and in April, Gov. Pat Quinn nominated her as director, which won’t become permanent until she is confirmed by the State Senate.
Earlier this month, the former corporate attorney with three grown daughters sat down with Wednesday Journal and spoke about her job, the issues the agency has faced, and her vision for the state’s child welfare agency.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a military family; I was born in Stuttgart [Germany]. When my father retired (he was a lieutenant colonel), I was in high school. I graduated from Rantoul Township High School, went to the University of Illinois for my bachelor’s and then law school at Northwestern.
What prompted you to get involved in child welfare work?
While working toward my MSW, I developed an interest in child welfare. I knew about DCFS and was reading about the not-so-positive experiences of children and families and the department. One story dealt with the outcomes that foster children experienced when they came out of the system. Some of these kids were not finishing high school, incidences of childhood pregnancy and births out of wedlock, and there was homelessness. They were heartbreaking at the time when my own children were in their late teens or early 20s. I was looking at the opportunities [my daughters] had before them and compared them to what I was reading about some of these foster kids. [I thought] if the state took custody of these children, we owed them the best possible outcomes we can give them. For many of these kids that wasn’t happening. It was eye-opening. After finishing my MSW, I sought an opportunity here.
What have you been doing since you became interim director?
One of my first focuses was explaining the department’s budget and defending it before the state legislature. Another primary task was working on renewing the agency’s re-accreditation with the Council on Accreditation. Accreditation indicates that the agency meets national standards of excellence for a particular area. Not going through the process would not send the right message to the state, the children and families we serve and the employees. … It’s gratifying to know that I have the opportunity to represent employees who do the work and the providers and have a voice for children and families in Illinois.
What do you think is the public’s perception of DCFS?
One misperception is all we do is snatch children from families. We only take them into our care when we are finding that the child’s safety is at risk, and they are not being efficiently managed at home. Ultimately the court decides.
Another misperception is that once we take a child they never go back to the parents; that’s also not true. Our first effort is, I don’t know the percentage, over 90 percent of the cases, is for reunification. Unfortunately there are some cases where reunification is just not going to be possible. In most cases, that’s the first effort is to work with the birth parents and address whatever issues existed that required the children to come into care in the first place and see if those could be addressed so the children can be safely returned home.
How can you help address these misperceptions?
I am willing to be available to the public and talk about what we do.
How do you like the job so far?
It’s both been rewarding and challenging. It’s rewarding to know that if we do our jobs, we will help protect children from harm and facilitate reunifying or having them placed in adoptive homes that are loving and safe. This summer in particular there had been a number of news stories about children left in cars and the horrible outcomes when that occurs; there have been child drownings. We have done public service announcements and developed posters and a communication campaign to help people understand the risks; we’ve engaged in prevention and that’s been rewarding.
Another area that’s been in the news relates to sex trafficking. Does the department work with other agencies on preventing that?
We have a population of adolescents that is vulnerable to trafficking. These are kids with past experiences of someone luring them into something with a promise of being cared for, becoming part of a family. We have been engaged with a task force with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, The Cook County Sheriff’s Police and the FBI. We create training materials and do training with adolescents so they understand the risks associated with trafficking.
Do you find there are some similarities between what you do now as the director of DCFS and your legal work?
The skills I was taught in law school and developed over the course of a practice have been valuable in terms of problem-solving, analyzing and looking for solutions and implementing them. It’s been beneficial to have a background to jump into and analyze issues as they arise. Every good executive needs to have these skills; otherwise they can become paralyzed by the complexities of this system.
What are your priorities as director?
To focus on making sure that kids who come into our care don’t experience subsequent abuse or subsequent neglect; it shouldn’t happen at all. Second is to get kids to permanency in a prompt way and get behind the issues and address them, whatever they are.
What is your vision for the department?
I want for us to do what we do as well as it can be done. Illinois used to have the national reputation for being the best child welfare department in the country. It’s fair to say that people do not describe us (that way). We have the capacity to be that again.