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Aldermen retaliate against Heartland Alliance, rush through registry ordinance

The Heartland Alliance and other child welfare agencies would be licensed by the city as child services facilities under a crackdown advanced Wednesday in apparent retaliation for alleged abuses and secrecy. | Provided photo

The Heartland Alliance and other child welfare agencies would be registered and regularly inspected by the city, under a watered-down crackdown advanced Wednesday in apparent retaliation for alleged abuses and secrecy.

A Chicago non-profit, Heartland and its affiliates have housed dozens of immigrant children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border as part of President Donald Trump’s controversial zero-tolerance immigration policy.

The registry and inspection ordinance championed by Finance Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and Zoning Chairman Danny Solis (25th) was rushed through the Finance Committee and the full Council on the same day — two days after Heartland officials were on the City Council hot seat, struggling to respond to allegations that children under its care were physically and emotionally abused.

Aldermen were incensed by a Washington Post story detailing troubling allegations made by children held in Heartland’s Casa Guadalupe shelter in Chicago.

“Hopefully, this is a wake-up call,” Burke told his colleagues on the City Council floor, acknowledging that the substitute ordinance — which creates a registry and mandates inspections, but does not require licensing — does not go far enough.

“There is nothing we can do to stop the federal government from this travesty. But we can influence agencies partnering with the federal government.”

After the vote, Heartland issued a statement:

“Heartland Alliance has no objection to additional oversight. For 23 years, we have been providing a safe and nurturing refuge for thousands of unaccompanied minors every year who cross the border alone, under the strict guidance and oversight of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. We share the City’s goal of ensuring the safety and well-being of every child, as we have for decades.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the city “would not be in this situation if we did not have a president and an administration that went to a place that no other president and no other administration, regardless of party, had ever gone” in its zero-tolerance policy.

“This is the appropriate step to ensure that, while children are here, we’re making sure that the facilities they are housed at meet all the standards we as a city can expect,” the mayor said.

“We’re stepping into a void and a chasm right now that was created unnecessarily by an administration and by a state agency that does not do its job.”

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Ald. Joe Moore (49th) said he agreed to the registry and inspection ordinance “very reluctantly” and only because it’s a far cry from licensing.

While allegations made in the Washington Post story are serious, Moore said, “We don’t even know whether they’re true…Why don’t we first find out if we have a problem before we try and solve it?”

David Sinski, executive director of Heartland Human Care Services, told aldermen earlier this week that if ongoing investigations “reveal that a staff member placed a child in danger, we will take immediate action.”

Ald. Danny Solis wasn’t happy with what he was hearing earlier this week from representatives of Heartland Alliance. | Sun-Times file photo
Ald. Danny Solis wasn’t happy with what he was hearing earlier this week from representatives of Heartland Alliance. | Sun-Times file photo

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.

On Wednesday, Solis again denounced the arrogance and evasiveness of Heartland executives. He accused Sinski of “hiding behind” federal secrecy mandates and using those edicts to deny aldermen information to which they are entitled.

Last Friday, Buildings Commissioner Judy Frydland inspected five Chicago shelters operated by Heartland Alliance and found the conditions and treatment of children to be fine, minus a few minor building code violations.

Burke was not appeased. He is bracing for a stiff challenge in his majority Hispanic ward after the recent defeat of his brother, State Rep. Dan Burke (D-Chicago).

The attack on Heartland Alliance is clearly aimed at boosting his image battered by years of handling property tax appeals for Trump Tower.

“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.”

The stronger licensing proposal bit the dust because it was so controversial.

West Side Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) was 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?”