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Heartland Alliance on the City Council hot seat about care of immigrant kids

Aldermen Ed Burke and Danny Solis at a City Council meeting in 2016. | Sun-Times file sphoto

A Chicago non-profit that has housed dozens of immigrant children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border was on the City Council hot seat Monday about allegations that children under its care were physically and emotionally abused.

The City Council’s Finance Committee put off until 9 a.m. Wednesday a vote on a proposal from Aldermen Edward Burke (14th) and Danny Solis (25th) to hold the Heartland Alliance and its subsidiaries accountable by adding “child welfare agencies to the institutions, places or facilities requiring licensing as a child services facility.”

But, a Washington Post story detailing troubling allegations made by children held in Heartland’s Casa Guadalupe shelter in Chicago put the non-profit on the hot seat.

“We take allegations like this very seriously. Within hours of our learning of the allegations, Heartland Human Care Services immediately self-reported them to the Office of Refugee Re-Settlement and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services,” David Sinski, executive director of Heartland Human Care Services, said Monday.

“We simultaneously initiated an internal investigation. We support Senator [Dick] Durbin’s call for a separate investigation by the Office of Inspector General and, if the investigation reveals that a staff member placed a child in danger, we will take immediate action.”

The assurance was not good enough to satisfy Solis, who decried the “sketchy information” provided about the number and condition of children under Heartland’s care.

“That type of information is important for parents that are literally going crazy not knowing where their kids are and what’s happening to their children. You should have provided that information from the very beginning,” he said.

If the allegations weren’t “so serious and involving children, infants, it would be almost funny,” Solis said.

“It’s almost like, `Who’s on first?’ But, you can’t have that kind of situation when you’re talking about babies. You’ve got to give us concrete information,” he said.

Burke asked Sinski, “Who brought these poor waifs to your doorstep?” He was told it was an armed agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Burke said he’s determined to forge ahead with the city licensing ordinance even though Buildings Commissioner Judy Frydland inspected five Chicago shelters operated by Heartland Alliance on Friday and found the conditions and treatment of children to be fine, minus a few minor building code violations.

“I’m pleased that they did go out there. But, it should be a regular annual inspection rather than something that’s created by a controversy,” Burke said, noting that the city has paid Heartland and its affiliates $22 million over the last four years.

“Is there anyone who believes that there’s rigorous enforcement of anything by the Department of Children and Family Services for the State of Illinois? That’s a statewide scandal.”

Ald. Ed Burke | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times
Ald. Ed Burke (14th) said there should annual inspections of child welfare facilities, “rather than something that’s created by a controversy.” Heartland and its affiliates, Burke noted, have been paid $22 million by the city over the last four years. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times
Frank Spielman/Sun-Times

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) called it “outrageous and disgusting” that Heartland can’t even tell aldermen definitively how many kids are under its care.

“Maybe it’s time that the city of Chicago just cuts its ties with Heartland period if that’s how you’re going to be. You have put us in a very unfortunate spot,” Lopez told Sinski.

West Side Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) said he’s concerned about the impact of city licensing on “home day care operators that may have four or five children.”

“They’re operating on their own. They don’t have the overhead to jump through all of these hoops,” Ervin said.

“Do we need to cast such a wide net that we have some unintended, overdue burdensome regulations on people that are basically just trying to provide a reasonably cost service for members of the community that, in many cases, are the working poor?”

Ald. Joe Moore (49th) urged his colleagues to think long and hard before running “head-long into putting in place a whole series of city regulations” that duplicate the state bureaucracy at an expense the city can’t afford.

“I, as a parent, am not perfect. And I’m sure child care givers make mistakes from time to time,” Moore said.

“You are doing the Lord’s work. Before we dump all over you because we don’t have the Trump administration sitting here who are the ones that deserve our anger and our outrage, I think we should just take a deep breath.”