Less than two months ago, a 7-year-old girl allegedly was sexually assaulted by a 12-year-old boy at a psychiatric hospital on Chicago’s North Side.

The little girl told an emergency room social worker she was “afraid to go back.”

In August, a 12-year-old girl at the same psychiatric hospital in Uptown allegedly was assaulted by an employee who had cornered her in a locked room.

The two cases are among a litany of disturbing incidents of alleged child sexual abuse in recent months and years at the psychiatric facility, Chicago Lakeshore Hospital, according to a report published Wednesday by ProPublica Illinois. A separate Chicago Tribune investigation has uncovered similar allegations.

Both girls, as well as many of the other alleged victims, were in the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Which is to say they were in all our care.

What’s going on at Lakeshore?

From what we can see, three different government agencies — two state and one federal — are struggling to answer just that question and end a growing scandal. But there is only one course of action at this point, we believe, that makes sense.

As recommended by the DCFS acting inspector general, and as seconded by Cook County’s acting public guardian, an independent expert should be appointed to conduct a comprehensive review of the hospital’s treatment and mental health services.

The American Civil Liberties Union, according to Tribune, also is now threatening take DCFS to court next week if the agency doesn’t provide for kids’ safety at Lakeshore. The ACLU also wants DCFS to stop future admissions there.

 

EDITORIAL

But, for practical reasons, DCFS has balked at taking that step. The agency already has implemented some reforms, with more to come, it says. And, frankly, DCFS already struggles to provide adequate services for the hundreds of vulnerable children in their care who require psychiatric services. Often, such children remain at the hospital longer than medically necessary simply because DCFS cannot find a placement for them.

Should DCFS no longer be able to send children to Lakeshore, that challenge would become even harder.

All the more reason, we would say, to appoint an independent investigator. DCFS is too close to the problem.

DCFS has received 16 complaints this year of potential harm to children at the hospital. The agency said four reports were found to be credible and five are pending. Yet, the hospital told the Tribune that all 16 cases were unsubstantiated, a claim that DCFS acting Inspector General Meryl Paniak called “ridiculous.”

Meanwhile, the federal government is threatening to cut off funding to the hospital if changes aren’t made.

In a series of inspections since July, the Illinois Department of Public Health — working on behalf of federal authorities — found that hospital staff were failing to monitor patients sufficiently, administering mood-altering medications to children and other patients without getting consent, and not ensuring the safety of suicidal patients.

Lakeshore has a history of such problems. In 2010, the Tribune reported that children there had been sexually assaulted, prompting DCFS to hire consultants from the University of Illinois-Chicago to conduct a review. The consultants discovered or confirmed a number of cases of alleged sexual assault and poor employee supervision. Lakeshore took issue with the findings, however, and no action was taken.

Enough already. Appoint the independent investigator.

We also sense a tone of denial on the part of DCFS.

“The question for DCFS is whether children are safe there,” Neil Skene, special assistant to DCFS Acting Director Beverly Walker, told ProPublica. “Nothing that we are seeing gives us concern for their safety.”

Tell that to those two victimized girls.

We believe DCFS should, instead, take to heart the words of its acting inspector general, who told ProPublica, “I don’t think that the department has done enough to ensure the safety of the kids there.”

The agency should listen, as well, to Cook County acting Public Guardian Charles Golbert, who told ProPublica there were “an awful lot of very serious red flags in a very short period of time” at the hospital.

Best yet, DCFS should heed the advice of a mother who took her 17-year-old son to Lakeshore after he tried to commit suicide.

When she visited him later on the day of his arrival, her son had bloody lips and bruises on his face and arm. Two male staff members, he told his mother, had pinned him down while holding his arms over the bed rail. One employee, the boy said, threatened to break his arm.

The mother took her son — who was not a DCFS child — to another hospital.

“I knew I could rescue him from there,” the mom told ProPublica. “But most of the kids there are wards of the state. There is no one to rescue them.”

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