CHICAGO – Citing risk of harm to thousands of children in the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), the ACLU of Illinois has asked a federal judge to order DCFS to jump-start reforms at the agency. The request to the court comes after more than four months of unsuccessful negotiations during which the ACLU, which represents all foster children in DCFS custody, repeatedly has urged DCFS to address several problems, including severe shortages of safe placements and necessary services, several of which have been the subject of stinging news reports and harsh criticism by legislators in recent months.
The filing makes clear that DCFS must begin to act immediately in order to bring the State of Illinois into compliance with the long-standing federal B.H. Consent Decree, which requires the State of Illinois to provide safe and appropriate placements for children in its care.
"There is no time for delay," said ACLU lawyer Benjamin Wolf in announcing the filing. "After almost a year of identifying problems in care and the resulting suffering of our clients, and after repeatedly being told that leaders and directors at DCFS do not have the authority to commit to reform, we believe that increased court oversight is needed now to protect Illinois’ most vulnerable children.
The ACLU has been asking a revolving door of DCFS officials to commit to reforms under which DCFS would provide intensive mental health services to children in home-like settings and in their communities instead of sending so many children to institutions, where many are exposed to abuse and neglect. A recent series of reports by the Chicago Tribune underscores that DCFS wards risk exposure to violence, sexual exploitation and neglect in large residential treatment centers.
"The overwhelming consensus of child welfare experts is that health care, mental health care and educational services are more effective when provided to children in a community or home setting, rather than an institution," added the ACLU's Wolf.
The ACLU also has urged DCFS to restore a vigorous, independent oversight of DCFS residential contractors, oversight conducted by knowledgeable child welfare and mental health specialists. Such oversight was an important feature of meaningful progress in reforming DCFS in the 1990s, but was scuttled by the administration of former Governors Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn.
Having been unable to reach agreement with DCFS about binding reforms, the ACLU now is asking the Court to appoint experts to guide the development of reforms DCFS will be bound to undertake.
"Unfortunately, we have seen many of the strong improvements for children in DCFS from the 1990s reversed since the independent monitors were removed from this process," added the ACLU's Wolf. "Independent experts can help the parties, the state and the court to understand what is really happening in the system -- so that we do not see a repeat of the horrors described in the Tribune."
The ACLU will asked the court to move quickly to order relief for the children in DCFS’ custody.