For the past year, the Tribune has reported in depth on issues at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services that include high worker caseloads, overdue investigations, an overloaded child abuse hotline and violent deaths of children whose families are known to the agency.
In our latest installment, the newspaper learned the state’s main emergency youth shelter in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood was overcrowded. That was one part of the broader story we hadn’t yet explored.
Police reports, state data, and more than two dozen interviews showed that a lack of available foster homes and other options for hard-to-place children meant some were staying there much longer than a 30-day limit, thus creating occasional overcrowding that had grown worse in recent months.
A runaway problem at the shelter requires hundreds of police visits a year. And the newspaper found that a growing number of older teens with criminal histories are put under the same roof as much younger children – including babies.
As I reported the story, it was surprising to learn that young children who had been removed from their homes due to allegations of abuse and neglect then were housed with older teens, up to age 21, among whom a growing number have violent criminal records.
The youth are separated based on age and sex but, in overcrowded conditions, the pairing was even more troubling. We learned the hardest-to-place kids are large sibling groups, teenagers and children who speak English as a second language. But the Tribune also found examples of babies who remained in the shelter for several days to weeks.
DCFS Director Richard Calica says that shelters are meant for emergency intervention, not placement.
It’s his goal to reduce the state’s reliance on shelters as much as possible. The overcrowding issue has eased since his administration recently began requiring supervisor approval before a shelter placement to ensure the worker exhausted other resources.
DCFS also had planned to hire recruitment specialists, but a nearly $90 million budget cut has hampered those efforts as well as a reorganization plan to move more workers to the depleted front line.
And should lawmakers decide not to act this week on a request to put back $37 million of the cuts, DCFS officials said widespread staff layoffs are expected.
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