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EDITORIAL: A lawsuit against DCFS hopefully comes to the rescue of troubled kids

Charles Golbert, acting public guardian for Cook County, speaks during a press conference at the law offices of Loevy & Loevy, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. Golbert is suing the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services over hundreds of children allegedly languishing in psychiatric hospitals. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Charles Golbert, acting public guardian for Cook County, is suing the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services over hundreds of children languishing in psychiatric hospitals. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Let’s be blunt: Illinois is doing a shameful job of caring for some of its most vulnerable, traumatized children.

Sometimes it takes a lawsuit to force systemic change, and we hope a Cook County public guardian’s recent lawsuit accomplishes that.

Acting Public Guardian Charles Golbert last week filed a class-action case against the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, accusing the agency of letting hundreds of foster children languish in psychiatric hospitals for months after doctors had cleared them to be discharged. The suit follows a ProPublica Illinois investigation earlier this year. 

Take the story of 11-year-old Jamya B., one of the children named in the lawsuit. Jamya, who’d been placed in foster care because of physical abuse at home, had a rare behavioral condition that was almost certainly made worse by an extra four months locked in a psychiatric ward, the suit alleges.

EDITORIAL

Jamya “has a heightened need for predictable long-term relationships, which extended hospital stays necessarily disrupt,” says the lawsuit. The stories of 14 other children, similar to or even more heartbreaking than Jamya’s, are all outlined in the suit.

Ideally, traumatized children who need psychiatric care but no longer need to be in a hospital would be placed in a group home, or in other setting with support services. 

Tragically, but not surprisingly, appropriate placements for these difficult-to-handle children are as scarce as hen’s teeth. DCFS struggles to find them, and it takes a herculean effort.

As Ed Yohnka of the American Civil Liberties Union told us, “The reality is, when you look at these kids staying [in hospitals] beyond medical necessity — those ought to be the cases where the agency, even the director, gets on the phone to make things happen.” 

“It’s definitely the result of a lack of services,” Yohnka added. “It’s also definitely a result of an agency [that] has not put the energy or resources into developing those services. A psychiatric hospital shouldn’t be the first destination. It should be the last resort.”

Golbert’s lawsuit could be the first step to much-needed systemic change.

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