CHICAGO — Illinois’ child welfare agency is accused of stranding more than 80 kids in juvenile jail despite the fact they could’ve been released. 

That’s according to a federal lawsuit filed against the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services by private attorneys who were joined by Cook County’s public guardian.

“It feels horrible,” said Janiah Caine, who was in DCFS care when she said she was sent to the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center and forced to stay there long after a judge said she was eligible for release. “It feels like nobody cares about you when they were supposed to be the people to get me out of a bad situation, but they put me in another bad situation.”

The federal lawsuit claims it’s happened to more than 80 children in the past year with those kids spending an average of 40 extra days locked up.  

The lawsuit says the youngest child to face extra incarceration was just 11 years old. 

“Every other child who has a parent, the parent comes and picks them up that day; but for countless children in DCFS care, they’re held for months beyond the time they should be released,” attorney Russell Ainsworth said.  

He said the agency simply lacks proper placement for challenging children.

Attorneys declined to reveal the charges that landed Janiah Caine and the other former DCFS wards in juvenile detention. Their advocates argue that unnecessary incarceration has severe consequences for already struggling kids. 

“Being forced to remain incarcerated months after a judge orders you released to your guardian can exacerbate feelings of abandonment, loss, anxiety, anger and powerlessness,” Cook County public guardian Charles Golbert said.

Caine agreed. 

“DCFS has this long process where they keep kids in terrible places just so they can find us somewhere to go,” Caine said. “I understand they’re trying to make sure we’re safe, but the period of time kids have to wait is ridiculous.”

Illinois’ child welfare agency having no place to put children with significant behavior or psychological issues is not a new problem. 

WGN Investigates reported in 2021 hundreds of kids were being kept in psychiatric hospitals longer than was deemed medically necessary because DCFS couldn’t find them suitable placements.

DCFS has long blamed underfunding for hollowing out the children’s safety net in the state while insisting the Pritzker administration is improving conditions. 

The agency responded to the claims about kids being incarcerated longer than necessary with the following statement:

“The Department of Children and Family Services works as quickly as possible to place youth in appropriate and safe settings. Of course, we can only place youth where we have availability that meets their needs, which is why the department is also working to expand the capacity that was hollowed out under previous administrations. Thanks to this work, in recent years we have made progress in reducing the number of youth who remain in the justice system past the date they are allowed to be released and we are deeply committed to continued progress. We cannot comment further due to pending litigation.”