SPRINGFIELD – Lawyers who represent children in the state’s foster care system plan to ask a federal judge this week to take enforcement action against the Department of Children and Family Services, claiming the agency is still out of compliance with a nearly 30-year-old consent decree.
“This December will mark the 30th anniversary of the consent decree in this case. Yet even after three decades, DCFS remains in woeful violation of most all of its promises to the children under this decree,” Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert wrote in a letter to the judge overseeing the case. “In fact, DCFS is in the worst shape it’s been in for at least a decade and continues in its decline.”
At issue is what’s known as the “B.H.” consent decree, which grew out of a federal class action lawsuit the ACLU originally filed against DCFS in 1988 alleging the agency was failing to provide adequate services to children in its care. The parties entered the consent decree in December 1991, requiring DCFS to make extensive changes over the next two and a half years.
The court retained jurisdiction over the case and appointed a monitor to oversee compliance. But in all the years since then, the agency has never been found to be in full compliance with the consent decree.
In 2015, the court appointed a panel of experts to evaluate services and placements provided to children in state care, especially those with psychological, behavioral or emotional challenges. That panel also came up with a list of “overarching outcomes” to measure the safety, permanency and well-being of children in DCFS care.
The next status hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday, March 12, before U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso in Chicago.
In his letter to the court dated Monday, Golbert said the state “still is not anywhere close to where it needs to be” in achieving those overarching outcomes.
“Moreover, DCFS continues to trend in the wrong direction for most of the measures,” Golbert wrote.
Specifically, Golbert noted that many children don’t receive the inpatient psychiatric hospital treatment they need because DCFS and the health care program that serves foster children, known as YouthCare, don’t have adequate access to psychiatric hospital beds.
“There’s not a shortage of psychiatric beds for kids in Illinois. That is not the problem,” Golbert said in an interview. “The problem is that psychiatric hospitals basically don’t want DCFS children.”
Golbert said there are several reasons for that. One is that DCFS lacks placements for children once they’re ready to be discharged from the psychiatric hospital, and hospitals are hesitant to take patients that will languish there for weeks or months.
Another reason, he said, is that during the two-year budget stalemate under former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration, the hospitals had a hard time getting paid.
“I know that was two years ago now, but a lot of psychiatric hospitals still have a sour taste in their mouth about that,” he said.
The letter also notes a severe shortage of licensed foster homes or residential group facilities to house foster children, forcing DCFS to place children in unlicensed “welcome centers” where caseworkers for the children must be assigned to supervise the children around the clock.
Although the welcome centers are often located within a licensed residential facility, such as a group home, those facilities take no responsibility for the children in the welcome centers.
“These welcome centers are basically offices with a cot,” Golbert said. “No therapeutic program, no services, no activities, no programming, no nothing. The kids sit around and watch TV and they’re supervised by DCFS workers because, basically, they’re just offices. They’re in existing residential placements but the residential placements have no responsibility for these kids.”
As of June 30, 2020, according to DCFS, there were just over 21,000 youth in DCFS custody.
In an email statement, DCFS said it was working aggressively to address what it called “the decades-long challenge of a lack of community resources and facilities for children, especially those with complex behavioral health needs.”
“These resources were particularly decimated under previous administrations, with DCFS losing nearly 500 in-state residential beds since 2012 and losing more than 2,300 foster homes since 2015,” the statement read. “This administration is reversing course and working to establish a System of Care to rebuild the network of living environments for young people in need.”
The agency said it is “working to overcome the longstanding challenges covered by this consent decree, and while we have made significant progress in many areas, we recognize that more progress cannot come soon enough.”
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