30 years after consent decree, DCFS still struggles to help kids in crisis

WGN Investigates

CHICAGO — Thirty years after the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services was placed under a federal consent decree to ensure it was living up to its mission, some child welfare experts say the agency once again falling shorts in areas judicial oversight was meant to address.

“You don’t need a PhD in social work to figure this out,” said Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert.   “Now we’re seeing kids sleeping on floors in offices again.  Now we see kids locked-up in psychiatric hospitals for weeks or months because DCFS  doesn’t have any place to place them.”

In a new court filing, Golbert cited previous WGN Investigates reporting that found kids in DCFS care were sleeping in office space because of a lack of available placements and emergency shelter space. State data analyzed by the public guardian found 162 children spent at least one night in makeshift office space or an unlicensed shelter space between August 2019 and December 2020, which is after our first report aired. The youth ranged in age from two months to 19 years old, according to the public guardian’s office.

DCFS has responded by creating what it calls “welcome centers” for kids to stay while a proper placement is found. While the agency shared photos of one such setting that appears to look like a comfortable room with a full-size mattress, other images show kids were sleeping in converted offices with little more than an air mattresses

WGN Investigates has also reported on the alarming number of kids in DCFS care who remain in psychiatric hospital facilities long after medical staff deems it medically necessary. “They didn’t have anywhere else to place me so I had to stay there longer and longer,” a young woman named Morgan told WGN in September.

In the last year, 356 kids statewide were hospitalized beyond the time it was medically necessary. The average stay: 55 days longer than a doctor deemed appropriate. And 18% of the kids were 10 years old or younger.

“When the consent decree was signed in 1991, it was common for children to be sleeping on floors in offices,” Golbert said. “The consent decree fixed that in the 1990’s… [and then] we started seeing that again 2 years ago for the first time in decades.”

DCFS’ difficulty in finding appropriate placements for kids in crisis was exacerbated in 2016 when former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration eliminated 500 placements with the promise of adding shelter space and therapeutic foster homes to meet kids’ specific needs. It didn’t happen. 

The current DCFS administration insists its working to add capacity but it comes when the need for care has significantly increased. In November 2017, DCFS reports having more than 17,000 kids compared with nearly 23,000 this month.  

“In the past few months, DCFS has added eight beds with another 14 beds expected to be available in December and is in constant contact with providers on how we can be helpful in increasing capacity even further,” agency spokesperson Bill McCaffrey said. 

“DCFS continues to build its network of residential spaces to provide youth in care with the best options and services in the least restrictive and most appropriate environment.  These efforts are working to increase the number of beds throughout the system, including shelter beds, residential beds and foster homes available for youth in care,” McCaffrey said.

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