Hundreds of Illinois children left in psychiatric hospitals weeks or months longer than necessary, report says

CHICAGO – Hundreds of children in the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services who are admitted into psychiatric hospitals have been left there long after they have been cleared to leave, according to a new report.

A ProPublica Illinois investigation found that out of nearly 6,000 psychiatric hospitalizations of children in DCFS care between 2015 and 2017 nearly 30 percent were held beyond medical necessity, instead of going into foster care or a residential treatment facility.

DCFS director B.J. Walker said fixing the issue is a definitive priority.

“Children are in hospitals because we don't have an adequate number of resources to make sure they leave the hospital and are safe and continue to get treatment when they leave,” Walker said.

Charles Golbert, acting Cook County Public Guardian, said this has been a problem that DCFS has known about for years. He said DCFS needs to be completely revamped.

“DCFS has had 10 directors or acting directors in the last seven years. So it’s not any surprise that they’re not able to make any type of long-term systemic changes to these problems,” Golbert said.

The report found longer than necessary hospitalization not only costs the state more money, but it can negatively impact the emotional and behavioral development of children in DCFS care as well as their access to educational instruction.

“No child should spend any additional days locked in a psychiatric hospital than is necessary,” Claire Stewart, an ACLU Illinois attorney said.

The ACLU continues to monitor DCFS as part of a consent decree.

“Part of the problem is that the department has been so slow moving in getting these issues resolved and in truly providing resources and services that are needed for these kids,” Stewart said.

“This is a serious systemic problem not just an issue of let's get more beds and all of it will be solved. We have to build the community-based infrastructure,” Walker said.

The DCFS director said they are working with private providers for additional residential treatment programs and with federal funding they are planning to beef up crisis intervention programs to try to avoid hospitalization.