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Yes, Gov. Pritzker, close juvenile detention centers — and then reimagine foster care

To more fully achieve a pledge to do “right by kids, families and communities,” the Pritzker administration should take a serious look at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

Offices of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, 6201 S. Emerald Dr., Chicago
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Supporting families means supporting parents and children.

When the Pritzker administration announced a groundbreaking initiative last month to close Illinois’ five remaining juvenile detention centers, it acknowledged that the current juvenile legal system disproportionately harms Black children, families and communities. Juvenile detention centers serve neither youth nor communities.

But to more fully achieve his goal of “doing right by kids, families and communities,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker and his administration must go further and take a serious look at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

As in the juvenile legal system, Black families are disproportionately entangled in the foster system. The often racialized and biased assessments of what constitutes “good” or “bad” parenting explain why approximately 53% of Black children nationwide will experience an investigation for abuse or neglect by age 18, and why Black parents in Illinois are over-represented in these investigations. It also explains why Black people statewide are 14% of the population while Black children make up 44% of the foster population. In Cook County, Black people are 24% of the population while Black children represent over 70% of the foster population.

It is high time to end the pain inflicted on Illinois families, particularly Black families, by the threat of or actual removal of their children by DCFS.

With racial bias pervading the Illinois foster system at every stage, the system handles neither allegations of neglect nor of abuse in ways that actually support and protect children and families. In 2018, approximately 63% of reports to the DCFS hotline for children ages zero to eight were for neglect.

“Neglect” is an amorphous term that attributes harm to children from the personal failings of parents, especially poor Black parents, but often is a result of accidents or unmet needs. The response to inadequate childcare, food, housing or clothing should be the provision of food, safe housing and clothing, not the threat of losing one’s children.

Children have better life outcomes when they are with their families. Separating children from their families and communities, even for short amounts of time, is detrimental and must be avoided. The Pritzker administration rightfully acknowledges the dangers of separating children from their families and communities through incarceration, which makes focusing on the 18,000 children currently in foster care in Illinois equally necessary.

Once the foster system entangles families, children are more likely to have contact with the juvenile legal system and the criminal legal system as adults.

We encourage the Pritzker administration to extend its commitment to the children and families harmed by the state’s foster system by focusing on the voices of impacted parents and youth. This means honoring the expertise of lived experience, ending failed policies, investing in long-term infrastructure, and providing tangible support to historically disinvested and marginalized communities, particularly communities of color.

By reimagining systems holistically, Illinois can truly move along a path to heal and uplift Black families.

Patrice James is Director of Community Justice at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. Tanya Gassenheimer is a Community Justice Staff Attorney at the Shriver Center.

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