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Mom to thousands of kids in state care retires

Updated: July 3, 2013 6:46AM

D. Jean Ortega-Piron has been mom to thousands.

But on Saturday, she set herself free from a daunting responsibility that would make the most accomplished parent shriek in terror.

After 17 years in one of Illinois’ least well-known but most demanding public roles, Ortega-Piron is retiring as guardian to all children in state care.

Since 1996, everything from school field trip permission slips to life and death decisions landed on her desk. Close to 400 times she’s had to give the awful order not to resuscitate a terminally ill boy or girl or to remove the child from life support.

Each time — and in every other decision she made — she said, she tried to follow a simple rule.

“I really realized, I’m the legal parent of these children,” said Ortega-Piron, 56, during a tearful interview before her retirement. “They took the rights away from the parents and put them on me ... I don’t have a psychology degree, I’m not a doctor, I don’t have a social work degree. I’m a lawyer ... but I’m a mother ... I said that’s it. That’s how we’re going to run the office.”

She calls it the Matthew-Nicholas standard, after her own two sons. How would she handle a situation if it involved one of them?

“She thought of every child as her own child,” said April Curtis, who was a foster kid for 18 years.

Since Ortega-Piron became the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services guardian, she said she’s organized, streamlined and modernized the office.

But most of all, she’s been there for many, many children, said the agency’s director, Richard Calica.

“When kids come into our care that have been really damaged, she visits them. She’s not a paper pusher,” he said.

Among the kids she’s met — and there’s been thousands — is Jennifer Manna, who was a teen in foster care when she wrote Ortega-Piron a letter seeking permission to get her belly button pierced.

“I would like to ask for a moment of your time so I can explain the reasons for my desire to have this done,” Manna wrote to Ortega-Piron — who still has the letter.

Ortega-Piron set a meeting with Manna, and although she didn’t allow for the piercing, the two became close — like family. So much so, Ortega-Piron and her husband were part of Manna’s wedding party.

“She has been just so warm and loving and always giving of herself — emotionally there,” said Manna, 28.

And there was Curtis, who first heard of the guardian when she needed permission to have a medical procedure. She said since then, she’s learned Ortega-Piron is protective of all the foster kids.

“If you did wrong by her children, she is a force to be reckoned with,” said Curtis, 33.

Calica lauded Ortega-Piron for some of her trailblazing work, including a memorandum of understanding between the agency and Mexico. She’s also helped lead the way in establishing a system for monitoring prescribed psychotropic medications for state wards. He said she’d done the job with “brilliance and with compassion.”

On Saturday, Ortega-Piron officially stepped down as guardian and Debra Dyer-Webster, an attorney and DCFS veteran, became the mom of nearly 15,000 kids.

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