Lawsuit alleges DCFS kept kids in psychiatric hospitals for longer than necessary

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CHICAGO — The acting Cook County Public Guardian filed suit against DCFS Thursday, alleging the agency engaged in inhumane practices by keeping kids in psychiatric hospitals after they'd been cleared for discharge.

A federal class-action lawsuit lawsuit filed against DCFS, more than 20 former and current directors and employees, and the estates of two deceased ex-directors alleges the practice goes back decades and is getting worse.

One plaintiff in the suit said even after she was cleared for discharge from Hartgrove Hospital, she was stuck there for another three months because DCFS had nowhere else for her to go.

"I spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, Easter and my 16th birthday in the hospital," said Skylar, who's now 19 years old. "I only got to go outside one time, I felt like a prisoner, I felt very depressed."

From 2015 through 2017, the lawsuit alleges more than 800 kids in the agency's care were held in psychiatric hospitals longer than was medically necessary. More than 40 percent were confined for a month or longer beyond when they should have been released, the lawsuit says. Acting Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert said the practice is, "cruel, unusual and illegal."

"It's a violation of the children's civil and most basic human rights," Golbert said Thursday.

DCFS officials did not comment on the lawsuit itself but, says there's a serious need in Illinois for community resources and facilities to handle the complex needs of children. In a statement, the agency said:

Many of the youths' behaviors, including fire-setting and self-harm, lead to rejections of admission by private residential providers and foster parents concerned about risk from these youth even after discharge from psychiatric hospitals. Some of the youth were turned away by their own families as a result of their behaviors.

Plaintiffs attorney Russell Ainsworth, Loevy & Loevy, said keeping kids institutionalized longer than is necessary also comes at a high price, costing Illinois taxpayers more money - while causing immense harm to children.

"Blame the children is the wrong response from DCFS. DCFS should be apologizing for not addressing this issue and for violating the constitution," Ainsworth said.

Another former patient, 19-year-old Burl said he was held beyond necessity for nearly two months, including his 10th birhday.

"I didn't get a chance to see my family, I was behind in school, there were days I woke up thinking I was at home and realized I was still in the hospital. Stayed there Christmas, I missed my birthday, it was hard, it was hard," Burl said.

DCFS says it is working to increase capacity and build services that reduce the need for psychiatric hospitalization.

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