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Watching out for Illinois’ most vulnerable kids becomes all the harder during a pandemic

DCFS has been doing a good job handling this unprecedented situation, but there’s a lot to be worried about.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, 6201 S. Emerald Dr. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, 6201 S. Emerald Dr. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The novel coronavirus had disproportionally impacted some of our most vulnerable communities including seniors, people with health conditions, the poor, and minorities including African-Americans.

But how is it impacting at-risk children who are in the custody of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services? How has DCFS been handing the crisis?

First, the good news. Overall, DCFS has been doing a good job handling this unprecedented situation. These are some of the positive steps DCFS has taken:

  • DCFS has given guidance to its private agency partners, and has done so in a transparent manner. Every directive and protocol related to COVID-19 is collected in a prominent location on DCFS’s website.
  • About 85% of DCFS’s operations are being conducted remotely. This includes remote interviews of children, foster parents and other care providers. Even operators at DCFS’s child abuse hotline are handling calls remotely, from their homes.
  • DCFS is giving foster parents $100 supplemental payments for March and April, for a total of $200, due to the additional costs of caring for children who are at home instead of in school.
  • A coalition of advocates urged DCFS to provide services to assist youth and young adults who have recently “aged out” of DCFS or are about to age out. These youth, many of whom have special needs, are particularly vulnerable for loss of wages, mental health issues and homelessness. DCFS is extending services to these youth including assistance with housing, food, unemployment, mental health and medical care and casework support.
  • DCFS was scheduled to rollout a problematic managed care plan for all medical care for the 17,000 children in its care, many of whom have complex medical needs, on April 1. The rollout in February for 19,000 children who were formerly in DCFS care — children who have been adopted or are in subsidized guardianship — was a disaster, with some 2,500 children being dropped from their health coverage for up to a week and many other problems. DCFS agreed to delay the managed care rollout indefinitely due to COVID-19.

Although there is good news in DCFS’s handling of the pandemic, there’s a lot to be worried about:

  • Calls to DCFS’s child abuse hotline dropped by more than 50% since the shelter-in-place order went into effect. Yet there is every reason to believe that incidents of child abuse and domestic violence are up with families hunkered down and isolated at home under stressors that are associated with increased incidents of abuse such as worries about work, money, and health.
  • DCFS’s move to remote interviews of children was necessary to protect children, families, foster parents, DCFS personnel and the public. But remote interviews, especially of young children about sensitive topics such as abuse and neglect, are not as effective as live interactions. It’s just not possible to pick up on all of the child’s subtle body language and facial expressions. It’s also more difficult to monitor whether someone in the next room is coaching the child.
  • Most concerning, all of the systemic problems plaguing DCFS for years haven’t gone into abeyance because of the crisis. As just one example, DCFS is managing the coronavirus crisis with the sever shortage of placements for children that existed before. As a result, children continue to languish needlessly in out-of-state placements, in what are supposed to be emergency short-term shelters, and in locked psychiatric hospitals long after they are ready to be discharged, just like before the crisis. Only now it is far more difficult to monitor these children.

Regarding children who are in out-of-state placements, even before sheltering-in-place measures and remote interviews, it was difficult if not impossible to properly monitor these children and the quality of the faraway placements. In addition, even before sheltering in place, it was difficult to support visits with siblings, parents, and other family members in these faraway placements.

Regarding children languishing in locked psychiatric hospitals for weeks and months after they are ready for discharge, in addition to being antithetical to the children’s civil rights, these children are needlessly in congregate care settings with shift staff coming and going and new patients coming and going. These children are thus at needless increased risk of COVID-19 infection. This is a result of DCFS’s dangerous shortage of placements, a problem that DCFS has known about for years and which has gotten much worse over the past five years, during which DCFS lost hundreds of placements.

While DCFS has been doing an admirable job during the crisis, DCFS is operating under the many and severe systemic problems that existed before. Most all organizations, under these unprecedented circumstances, are understandably not running on all cylinders. But if they started with eight fully-charged cylinders, there are hopefully redundancies if a cylinder goes out. Unfortunately, before the pandemic started, DCFS was chocking along on only a few cylinders.

Children, like other vulnerable populations, will be disproportionally impacted by this crisis. When the crisis is behind us, Illinois must commit to meaningful reform of DCFS. Children are our most important asset, and they deserve better.

Charles Golbert is the Cook County Public Guardian. His office represents approximately 6,000 children in abuse and neglect cases in the Cook County Juvenile Court.

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