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Hundreds of kids spent days, weeks and months locked in mental health hospitals longer that was medically necessary in recent years because Illinois’ child welfare agency had nowhere to put them.

After WGN Investigates first reported on the problem in 2021, lawmakers cried foul, and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services vowed to speed up the process of finding appropriate placements for kids in its care.

The agency now reports the number of youths who are hospitalized “beyond medical necessity” is down by more than 80%.

It comes as an appellate court overturned a previous judge’s decision to repeatedly hold DCFS director Marc Smith in contempt of court for failing to find timely and appropriate placements for kids.

“As the Appellate Court described, DCFS has been actively working to secure clinically appropriate placements for these children,” agency spokesperson Bill McCaffrey wrote in a statement. “Based on the record of DCFS’ actions, the Appellate Court found it was an abuse of the trial court’s discretion to hold the agency in contempt.”

However, critics point to an appellate court finding that said the agency was “clearly ineffective” and that “it does not appear that DCFS and Director Smith demonstrated a sense of urgency to find appropriate placements” for vulnerable kids. 

“We will continue to be aggressive about pursuing contempt of court findings in appropriate cases where DCFS unlawfully forces children to languish in wholly inappropriate placements like locked psychiatric hospitals, emergency rooms, detention centers, offices, “temporary” shelters, and the like,” Cook County public guardian Charles Golbert wrote in a statement to WGN. “The bottom line is that DCFS must finally, once and for all, get its act together and develop the array of placements and services that our children so desperately need.”

In 2021, WGN Investigates reported 356 kids statewide had been 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.

“They didn’t have anywhere else to place me, so I had to stay there longer and longer and longer,” explained a young woman named Morgan in 2021. 

She said she spent several months hospitalized, on several occasions, when she was a teenager in the care of DCFS.  Morgan, who is now over 18, said she was treated for bipolar disorder and anger issues.  

“I’m sure they don’t want to leave us in that type of situation,” Morgan said. “But they leave us there so, it’s hard to believe.”