Ex-DCFS director Richard Calica reflects on career focused on children's safety

November 17, 2013 (CHICAGO)

His cheeks still look ruddy, his smile is still there. But in three-and-a-half decades of work to keep children safe, Richard Calica has been very serious. More than 30 of those years as head of Chicago's award-winning agency, the Juvenile Protective Association .

In a rare moment, Calica revealed why neglected children have been his passion. His mother was orphaned and alone for years in Poland before she was brought to the U.S.

"She had an abiding sense of loss. My father died when I was 8. It affects the way you feel, I wanted to provide a secure world as I could for kids," said Calica.

Almost exactly two years ago, Calica stepped away from his beloved JPA to become director of DCFS.

"What to do to help kids, where are those kids who need it, how to get to these kids. At the end of my career, people said I was crazy to take this job, but its been the most exciting two years of my life," said Calica.

Virtually every DCFS director faces criticism, and Calica is no exception-- though in his case, he believes he brought it on himself by releasing bad news. These DCFS news releases recounting a large increase in the number of children who died. His frustration is that so many of them were from an adult rolling over and suffocating a little one.

"I can't tell you the number of rollovers, the crib is sitting right there, after we told them. But there's a 4-month-old, blood coming out of its nose, it's been rolled over on. It's a horror," said Calica.

So education was a priority, though Calica believes he has also been able to make improvements in DCFS.

Workers and investigators had a 29 to 30 caseload, which has been cut now to fewer than 10. To accomplish that, a layer of middle management was cut out, with those social workers going back out onto the front line. Calica believes those workers should get more support.

"It's a horrible job. You see things no normal human being sees, things that are horrifying, parents violating their most sacred trust, kids with bruises, dead kids. . . When someone is whipped, we didn't do it, when they are starved, we didn't starve them, yes, we're supposed to prevent it," said Calica.

Another step: agencies with DCFS contracts were told they had to stop keeping children in foster care for years, instead, finding them permanent homes.

As he leaves public life, Calica wants DCFS to remember:

"The focus of DCFS is that children should feel secure, that a permanent adult loves them, that they are safe when they go to sleep at night, feel loved and cared for, won't be grabbed away in the morning," said Calica.

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