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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- The head of Illinois' child welfare agency stepped down Friday after a highly praised nine-year tenure, as Gov. Rod Blagojevich signaled the department was headed in a new direction.

Jess McDonald submitted his resignation Friday as director of the Department of Children and Family Services. He will stay in the post until April 30.

McDonald was not available for comment Friday, said spokeswoman Jill Manuel. He gave no reason why he stepped down, she said.

In an e-mail sent to about 4,000 department employees Friday morning, McDonald wrote that it was an "extraordinary honor and privilege" working with a staff that he called second to none.

McDonald has run the much-scrutinized agency since 1994 under two Republican governors. Child advocacy groups credit him with leading a major turnaround in performance.

The department slashed the number of abuse and neglect cases and put far more children in safer, permanent adoptive homes rather than foster care. McDonald also helped improve caseworker education and reduced the size of caseloads, advocates said.

"He certainly was the best director this agency ever had and deserves all of the accolades he's received," said Benjamin Wolf, associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, a child welfare watchdog.

Blagojevich spokesman Tom Schafer said McDonald's resignation caught the governor by surprise. A statement from Blagojevich said DCFS faces new challenges "which require reevaluation and a new approach."

Schafer said the Democrat governor had not decided whether to reappoint McDonald, but some recent problems at the agency were being considered.

Several reports of abuse and neglect last year in Chicago and at Maryville Academy, the state's largest facility for treating abandoned and abused children, prompted Blagojevich to appoint a panel of experts to thoroughly review the agency in February.

The panel is expected to present recommendations by mid-April, when Blagojevich will pick a new leadership team, the governor's office said.

Although McDonald's tenure was a success, advocates said the next director still faces many challenges. Those include better oversight of children with psychiatric problems and more support for caregivers.

"This is one of the most difficult assignments that society can come up with, and nobody can do it alone," said Jerry Stermer, president of Voices for Illinois Children, a not-for-profit group of child advocates.