The ACLU has forced groundbreaking reforms of the Illinois foster care system since 1988, when we filed this landmark case against the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Over the last 28 years, the ACLU’s relentless and successful pursuit of court-ordered reforms has secured safe, stable adoptive homes for more than 40,000 children. Our reforms also have reduced caseloads, improved the safety of children, protected adequate agency funding, implemented better training for caseworkers and private agency staff, and reorganized DCFS systems of supervision and accountability. Our advocacy has resulted in a reduction of the number of children in Illinois foster care from more than 50,000 in 1995 to approximately 15,000 today. From a system that was once one of the worst in the nation, Illinois reform strategies have become a model for setting and achieving benchmarks and outcomes for the care of children in government-run systems.
The road to reforming DCFS has been fraught with obstacles. In 2009 the ACLU won a federal court order blocking hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to essential DCFS programs—cuts that would have made it impossible for the agency to comply with the consent decree approved by the federal court in 1991. In 2012 a federal court approved an agreed order requiring DCFS to bring caseloads back into compliance with the decree by the end of 2012 and mandating several additional steps to reduce the likelihood that this problem will occur in the future. The substantial turnover in the Director position at DCFS throughout recent years has made progress difficult.
In 2014 we advised the DCFS of reports about severe shortages of mental health services and substandard conditions at various residential treatment centers housing our clients. The data responding to our request indicated, among other things, that hundreds of youth were at shelters, detention centers, juvenile prisons, psychiatric hospitals and other settings waiting for the services and placements they needed. As a result, we advised DCFS in November, 2014 that it was in violation of our consent decree. We asked that DCFS agree to retain independent mental health experts to help us figure out an enforceable plan to address these problems. When DCFS refused, in February 2015, we filed an emergency motion with the court.
After negotiations with the new Acting Director of DCFS, George Sheldon, the parties in March of 2015 filed a joint motion proposing an interim plan to address the most immediate needs of the children and agreed to nominate experts for appointment by the court to recommend solutions to the systemic deficiencies in DCFS care and services. The court granted the motion and subsequently appointed four leading experts to evaluate services and placements for DCFS wards and recommend appropriate solutions to the parties and the court.
In July 2015, the expert panel issued its report. The report found systemic problems within DCFS, including the fact that Illinois lacks adequate home and community based mental health resources and that children languish in intensive residential treatment centers and group home settings while waiting for less restrictive placements. The report also called for fundamental changes to leadership structure, training, and monitoring within DCFS. In October 2015, following negotiations with DCFS, the Court entered an agreed Order fully adopting the findings in the expert panel’s report and appointing some of the original experts to serve on the court-appointed panel moving forward. The Order also required DCFS to prepare a plan to implement the expert panel’s recommendations.
Over four months, the parties and the experts negotiated the terms of a proposed implementation plan, submitted in February 2016. The Court then ordered the parties to submit some additional information about the plan by June 14, 2016. On joint motion of the parties, the Court extended that deadline until June 28, 2016. We are hopeful the Court will approve the proposed plan at our next scheduled court appearance in the summer of 2016.
The ACLU continues to block efforts to gut funding for children in DCFS custody. Most recently, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner threatened substantial, devastating reductions in DCFS funding as part of his proposed budget, including ending all services to youth in state custody between the ages of 18 and 21. We continue to ensure that our clients are entitled to the protections of the consent decree, including adequate services and placements. In her testimony before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, ACLU of Illinois Executive Director Colleen Connell stated that the ACLU is prepared to go back to court to block such cuts and to “force the Department to live up to its obligations.”