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WGN Investigates

CHICAGO — Just two weeks ago, two teenagers were left with no choice but to sleep on the floor of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services office building in the South Loop.

That’s according to a letter written by the Cook County Public Guardian to a federal judge overseeing a consent decree.

“Our worst fears have been realized,” wrote public guardian Charles Golbert. “DCFS has to resort to forcing children to sleep on the hard cold floors of its offices because it doesn’t even have an adequate number of shelter beds.”

In an interview with WGN, Golbert said: “It’s a violation of the children’s civil rights. It’s a violation of their rights under a federal consent decree that governs DCFS and it’s a violation of basic human dignity for the children.”

Golbert said the kids were 16 and 17 years old. After spending the night on the floor, he said one of them ran away from DCFS and, at last word, had not been found.

This may not be an isolated incident.

The public guardian told the judge: “I suspect other children have also suffered the same indignity in recent weeks.”

Ben Wolf, who is an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, told WGN he was not surprised to hear about children sleeping on the floors of DCFS offices.

The ACLU fought for and received a federal consent decree in the mid-1990s governing the treatment of kids in DCFS custody. The case grew out of a strikingly similar situation in which the state agency charged with protecting kids was forcing some to sleep on office floors.

“There may not be hundreds of kids yet sleeping in offices — as I think there aren’t or we would know it — but the fact you have a few is a symptom of a growing cancer. And you have to address it,” Wolf said.

A DCFS spokesperson told WGN Investigates the agency is aware of the concerns raised in the public guardian’s letter.

While not addressing specific questions, DCFS released this statement:

“Under the new administration, long-standing challenges within DCFS are being addressed. The Department is committed to rebuilding the child welfare system in Illinois and strengthening programs and services that keep children and youth safe.”

The ACLU said kids sleeping on the floor is not only a symptom of not enough emergency shelter beds, it also underscores problems throughout the system.

“Illinois keeps kids in substitute care, away from families, longer than any other state in the country and so it keeps backing up and kids keep being stuck,” Wolf said.

A source told WGN that in this case, there simply weren’t any shelter beds available. DCFS admitted it’s a problem.

As that federal consent decree illustrates, however, it’s not a new one. The ACLU is now asking a federal judge to force the agency to find appropriate care for every kid in crisis.

This is just the beginning of an up-close and in-depth look at an agency in crisis. WGN will spend an entire week reporting on why kids have been failed by this state agency.

Looking for WGN’s reports “Protecting Children: Examining DCFS” beginning Monday, July 8.