Earlier today, U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonso received a report from an independent panel of experts he appointed and charged with examining how to improve placements and services for children with psychological, behavioral and emotional challenges who are under the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). The appointment of these experts followed a request by the ACLU, which represents foster children under the care of DCFS. Under terms of a Consent Decree in that case, DCFS must provide specified levels of service and care to children in its custody. The ACLU alleged that DCFS was in substantial breach of several fundamental requirements under the Decree, and that children were suffering immediate harm as a result.

The following can be attributed to Benjamin Wolf, associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in response to the expert report:

"This report is a clarion call for change – real change within DCFS. We urge the Department to take the recommendations to heart, to agree to adopt the Panel’s recommendations in full, and move swiftly to make real, lasting change. The experts’ conclusions make clear that there can be no tinkering around the edges. They describe the Department’s current operation as a system of practice “shaped by crises, practitioner preferences, tradition, and system expediency,” and urge the Department to move instead to a cohesive, evidence-based practice model based on well-recognized core principles.

The Panel also emphasizes that the services and treatments provided to a child should be chosen based on the child’s needs rather than the Department’s ability to claim federal dollars to defray the Department’s service cost. They call for fundamental retraining and coaching of front-line staff and their supervisors, phased in over time, to completely reorient the service delivery culture at the Department. And they call for a wholesale review of the Department’s leadership structure and re-training of management on basic management skills and clinical issues. In other words, the reform the Department needs to undertake cannot be accomplished unless workers and management “reboot” their interactions within the Department itself, with children, with families, and with outside care providers.

Not surprisingly, this report also makes clear that DCFS is badly in need of independent, outside monitoring, with those charged with that responsibility reporting directly to the Court rather than to the DCFS Director. Aside from the fact that we have no guarantee how long any particular Director may be able or willing to serve, the very nature of a monitoring function to judge the Department’s efforts to achieve compliance with the BH Decree requires that the monitor answer to those outside the Department. The Expert Panel has recommended that external reporting mechanism, and we will fully support that and the rest of the Panel’s recommendations. We will be urging Judge Alonso to adopt the experts’ recommendations and move forward with change within DCFS."