CHICAGO — Gov. JB Pritzker and DCFS director Mark Smith characterized images seen in a WGN Investigates report in 2019, that detailed children in DCFS care sleeping in state offices while awaiting a more suitable placement, as “unacceptable.” Now, more than two years later, it’s still happening.
State lawmakers summoned DCFS officials to a hearing Thursday demanding answers.
“The whole reason we’re having this hearing is because of what you exposed,” said State. Rep. Kathleen Willis.
In July, WGN Investigates reported despite promises to fix the issue, some kids were still sleeping in offices, but now they were being given air mattresses.
During testimony Thursday, DCFS officials told lawmakers 197 children spent the night in either DCFS or private agency office space. Approximately 20 children spent more than 24-hours there and one child spent just under three weeks in non-certified shelter space.
“Over 80 percent stay less than 24 hours, which I understand that things happen in the middle of the night. I’m concerned about that 20 percent who are staying longer. What can we do to not have that happen?” Rep. Willis said.
DCFS Director Mark Smith later told WGN News some of the children stayed at what he’s dubbed “welcome centers,” but an agency spokesperson later confirmed the statistics reflect office stays.
Legislators also questioned the “welcome center” concept when officials conceded DCFS does not pay for the space and the private agencies who provide it don’t provide staffing or programming for the kids in care. A DCFS caseworker monitors the child while they seek a more appropriate placement.
“A welcome center is not an office,” Smith said. “A welcome center is an environment that was provided to give children a place to care for them, to make sure they have a bed, a place to eat and shower.”
But he conceded it’s not a long term solution. The facilities offer a total of eight beds.
The space crunch exists because DCFS only has access to 37 emergency shelter beds statewide and many foster parents are reluctant to accept children with behavior or mental health problems.
“We have clients staying in these spaces for very prolonged periods of time,” said Cook County Public Guardian attorney Danielle Gomez. “They’re being cared for by people not appropriately trained to care for them and their needs are not being met.”
A court decree specifically bans kids from being housed in offices or hotels, even temporarily. A representative of the ACLU of Illinois testified she believes DCFS’ actions violate the terms of that ruling.