DCFS must end practice of housing wards of the state in juvenile jail

A WBEZ report found that the practice, once on the decline, is now ticking up again.

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Illinois Department of Children and Family Services headquarters.

Illinois Department of Children and Family Services headquarters.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Since January, the evidence has been piling up that the long-troubled Illinois Department of Children and Family Services continues to struggle to find placements for children in its care.

On Jan. 6, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Patrick T. Murphy issued two contempt of court orders against DCFS Director Marc Smith and the agency for violating the rights of a 9-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy who were left in psychiatric facilities for months awaiting placements.

It was a move Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert had never seen in the more than 30 years he has worked in the office that represents abused and neglected children.

Last month, Murphy issued an 11th contempt of court order against Smith. These court orders have served as temporary fixes, putting pressure on DCFS to swiftly find suitable placements.

Editorial

Editorial

Now, a recent report by WBEZ’s Patrick Smith found more evidence of the problem: DCFS continues to routinely house its wards in Cook County Juvenile Detention Center — the county’s juvenile jail — because placements are not available.

Last year, 84 youths in the care of DCFS were left in juvenile detention well beyond their ordered release.

“What DCFS is doing, not only is it a monumental and cruel civil rights violation for these children, it’s a monumental waste of taxpayer money that could instead be used to expand placement capacity the kids actually need,” Golbert told us. “But now we are not only seeing these placement problems stay in place, but get worse year after year.”

The placement shortage stems from a 2015 decision by the state to cut 500 residential beds in group homes and institutions and replace them with therapeutic foster care homes. The move was well-intentioned and would provide community-based support for youth — but it never fully succeeded.

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WBEZ first reported on the practice of leaving wards of the state in juvenile jail in 2015. Since then, DCFS made some progress in fixing it. But the number of wards being housed in the jail is now slowly ticking back up.

It’s a troubling trend — and one DCFS must reverse.

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