For more than two decades, the ACLU of Illinois has worked to improve conditions for children under the care of the child welfare agency, the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Last week, the ACLU was in court on our motion to jump start reforms at DCFS after months of fruitless negotiations failed to make necessary changes at the Department.
Associate Legal Director Ben Wolf told the court that the children could not wait any longer, making clear that the Department is in “crisis.” The ACLU’s motion comes after a series of reports in the Chicago Tribune and legislative hearings that made public that DCFS is failing the children in their care. Many of these issues had been the subject of ACLU concerns, expressed directly to the Department, over several months.
Appearing before U. S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonso on February 19th, the ACLU asked the court to put in place a group of court-appointed experts, who could report back to the court in a short time frame about immediate and long-term changes to the Department’s operation.
The ability of DCFS to function faced another challenge this week when Governor Bruce Rauner issued his budget proposal, which included significant cuts to DCFS programs. In addition to slashing general operating funds from DCFS, the Governor’s announced budget would eliminate all support and assistance for DCFS wards once they reach the age of 18.
The ACLU’s Wolf described cutting off all financial support to children at that point as “cruel.”
It is fair to say that DCFS has been in crisis mode for several months. As Wolf pointed out to the court last week, at least six different people have run the Department over the past 15 months. Governor Rauner has just appointed another new Director. It is telling that in court, the lawyer for DCFS did not dispute the ACLU’s representation, but simply asked for more time so that the new agency head could get acclimated.
The chaos within DCFS also could be seen last week after WBEZ reported that children in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center were regularly held for ext ended periods of time (up to 190 days in one instance) waiting for DCFS to come pick the youth up and place them somewhere outside the detention center. When asked about this situation, a DCFS spokesman said that the department knew of the problem, but had no plans to fix the situation.
There must be specific, detailed and funded plans for addressing these problems. That is why the ACLU is back in court and why we will be fighting for adequate budgets to fund those plans. The State of Illinois has taken custody of the children in DCFS – they are our children. We must ensure that they are safe and well-cared for.