Illinois officials are defending the state’s child welfare agency in the wake of a WBEZ report that the Department of Children and Family Services is routinely leaving kids in its care housed in juvenile jail.
A recent WBEZ investigation found that dozens of young people were being left to wait in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center for weeks and even months after a judge had ordered their release. They are being left behind bars because their guardian, the state, is unable to find a better place to house them. People who work with the affected young people called the problem a “cruel” violation of the children’s civil rights.
But Keith Polan, chief deputy of child and clinical services for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, said the reporting and the response to it “misses a big part of the story:” how difficult it is to find suitable living arrangements for the kids stuck in jail.
“The story is the needs of these kids,” Polan said. “These kids have been identified that they need treatment, or they need specific supports to be successful in the community. And the challenge has been finding the best and most appropriate service and support for these kids.”
Polan is in charge of finding placements for the incarcerated young people in the agency’s care. He said he hears “directly” from case workers who are frustrated by the struggle getting young people out of jail and into more suitable homes.
“Nobody cares more about the kids than all of us here at DCFS,” Polan said in an interview with WBEZ. And he said the agency staff works every day “to find the most supportive and appropriate services and placement for these kids.”
The young people at the center of all this are referred to as “dually engaged” because they are involved with the child welfare system and the juvenile courts. Polan said justice involvement can make finding homes for the kids more difficult.
“The youth that are [waiting in jail] have significant mental health and behavior challenges, along with the involvement of the justice system,” Polan said. “So some of the behaviors that these clients exhibit that led to their incarceration make them that much more challenging to find the appropriate placement and service needs as compared to other kids with significant behavioral and emotional problems.”
Polan acknowledged that if the system was working how it is supposed to, the agency would have immediate placements for the young people once a judge ordered their release, regardless of the obstacles. But as things stand now, it is better to leave the kids locked up after their release date than place them somewhere outside of jail that doesn’t meet their needs.
But Richard Wexler, co-founder of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, which advocates for reducing the number of kids in the foster care system, said keeping kids in inappropriate settings like jails has a “horrific” impact on the young people.
“You are piling harm upon harm upon harm, and basically engaging in massive, at a minimum, emotional abuse of these children,” Wexler said.
And he scoffed at the agency’s insistence that finding placements for the incarcerated young people is more challenging or complex than critics realize.
“Of course it’s difficult, but doing the difficult stuff is your job. And it can be done,” Wexler said.
Illinois State Sen. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, said part of the solution lies in preventing so many young people from entering into the care of the state in the first place. She said the child welfare system is overwhelmed, and the focus needs to be on “keeping families together by helping them.”
Feigenholtz said she’s optimistic about the future of DCFS because of recent hires, and Gov. JB Pritzker’s decision to spend more money on the agency.
“We’re rebuilding, and we’re gonna get this. We’re committed to getting those kids out of those juvie centers,” Feigenholtz said.
She said to do that, the state will need to pay “handsomely” for support services that allow kids to get the mental and behavioral help they need while staying with their parents. Feigenholtz said some of the young people “languishing” in jail are there because their parents felt they had no choice but to give up custody so their child would be eligible for a broader array of state supports.
According to DCFS, about a quarter of the young people who waited in juvenile jail for DCFS to find placement became wards of the state only after they entered into the jail.
Polan said it is an “important distinction” that a quarter of the kids stuck in jail were not in the state’s care before being locked up.
“These are kids that their parents have chosen to not pick them up, relinquished their rights, and have come into DCFS care because of the challenges that these youth present,” Polan said. “So if we had a system that [could] meet these kids’ needs, other than coming into DCFS care, my guess would be that these parents would take that route.”
But Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert, who is in charge of legal representation for kids in DCFS, said the distinction is irrelevant.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter,” Golbert said. “They’re required by law to have the placements that they need for all the kids…The law requires that they have placements for them [immediately], not two months after [they’re supposed to be released].”