Illinois child welfare agency wrongly imprisons youngsters

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Last week, National Public Radio affiliate WBEZ in Chicago reported the continued detention of youth wards across the state held in youth prisons for no reason other than the Department of Children’s Services and at Illinois Family (DCFS) says it has no place to put them.

Cook County Juvenile Detention Center and Courthouse in 2010 (photo by Zol87)

Andrea Lubelfeld, the new chief of the Cook County Public Defender’s Juvenile Justice Division, spoke with WBEZ about the crisis facing youth who have served time or are awaiting trial and are free. to leave.

“The judge did not order their detention. The judge ordered their release,” she said. “So every day they sit in the detention center without being released is just not right. They are children. They were separated from their families and suffered trauma. They have been placed with a new guardian, the state, and the state is not picking them up from the detention center. »

According to Cook County data, 84 people in DCFS custody were left in the juvenile detention center after a judge ordered their release, sometimes for months.

Workers interviewed by WBEZ noted that the psychological and emotional toll of young people who have gone through very difficult circumstances makes the agency’s negligence and inaction unspeakably cruel.

WBEZ reports that the youngsters attend weekly hearings with a judge and DCFS and hear official reasons why no one is coming for them. Charles Golbert, a Cook County legal guardian, said the situation “sends a very powerful message to these children, that they are not valued in society and that they don’t matter…that they are disposable children. It’s just awful.

DCFS spokesman Bill McCaffrey responded to WBEZ’s request for information to say the agency was adding beds to its facilities. He wrote that a “variety of factors can influence” the outcome of release from a juvenile ward, such as the judge’s placement requirements and a residential facility “willing to accept the youth.” The outlet reported that in 2015, the average wait time a young person spent in prison beyond their release date was 70 days and that time had roughly halved over the past few months. next – to a month spent in prison. But the wait time has been steadily increasing ever since.

Golbert told WBEZ that the reason for this is the state’s decision beginning in 2015 to cut nearly 500 residential beds in group homes and institutions, and instead provide services to children in residential settings. foster homes.

“The problem is that this theory is based on the existence of strong community services for these children. And we don’t have community services for these children. So DCFS removed the 500 residential group home beds before it created any of the therapeutic foster home beds,” he explained.

WBEZ reported in 2015 that between 2011 and 2014, there were 350 cases where children waited a week or more in jail for DCFS to pick them up; some have occurred more than once. The longest wait recorded was 190 days.

After the Child Rights Violation was published in 2015, DCFS implemented improvements, which lasted until about 2018, with the average waiting time for children now exceeding 53 days.

DCFS Chief Marc Smith was found in contempt of court 11 times in May 2022 due to multiple cases of child neglect and abuse in the system that caused serious harm to children and members of the host family. Last month, an agency audit also found it was not properly tracking cases reported by ‘mandated reporters’, including teachers, childcare providers and healthcare professionals. , who must report suspected cases of abuse or neglect.

David Jackson, an investigative reporter for the Better Government Association, a nonprofit watchdog group, told ABC7 Chicago that his agency found “hundreds of Illinois adoptive children improperly detained for weeks or months in detention centers, shelters, psychiatric hospitals long after doctors cleared them for release.

Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker came to Smith’s defense, blaming the previous administration under Bruce Rauner for the loss of 500 residential beds. Under Republican Gov. Rauner’s administration, the state stopped paying treatment facility operators for residential placements amid a two-year budget stalemate from 2016 to 2017 that was used to stifle social services even as the 2008 crash and ensuing recession expanded society. need everything from housing, food assistance and utilities, child and elder care assistance and mental health services to residential care.

The DCFS budget has been cut by Democratic and Republican administrations in Illinois for decades. The agency was placed under a federal consent decree in 1991 requiring it to maintain a certain level of staff that is virtually impossible to sustain under the relentless pressure of budget cuts and decaying infrastructure.

In 2009, major cuts to the DCFS budget were blocked by a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which argued that the cuts would prevent the agency from meeting the terms of the consent decree. federal. In 2011, the agency suffered a $30.2 million reduction in block grants due to a “re-estimate of facility and group home demand.”

According to a report published in 2012 in the Springfield Journal Register, the agency had more than 120 investigators short of the consent decree’s mandate. That same year, under the administration of Democratic Governor Pat Quinn, the agency had a budget $86 million less than it had received the previous year. An agency spokesperson said that meant around 375 positions would be cut.

In 2014 and 2015, the ACLU again went to court to force the agency to deal with the large number of children in the agency awaiting care.

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