After being beaten with a pan and left in the dark for hours bound to a pole, the 11-year-old girl escaped from her abusive home through a basement window and walked barefoot six blocks to the La Grange police station one summer night in 2011.
"She came in and said, 'I need help,'" La Grange police Chief Michael Holub said. "She was very brave."
The girl's mother had been deported, and a woman who was caring for her and a sister was arrested for the beating. So the state's child welfare agency took the girls into protective custody. But instead of finding a stable home for the sisters, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services kept them for almost five of the next six months in an emergency shelter in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood.
The sisters were among hundreds of children and teens who have been forced to linger in the shelter — the largest in the state — beyond a 30-day limit set in a federal consent decree, the Tribune has learned. State officials blame the problem on a shortage of foster homes and other options.
Those who stay the longest at the emergency shelter are teens, large sibling groups and children like the La Grange sisters who speak English as a second language and are without other relatives.
Police reports, state data and confidential documents show that the shelter, Aunt Martha's Children's Reception Center, has been plagued by overcrowding and problems with runaways that require hundreds of police visits a year. 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.
Some DCFS investigators whose job includes removing children from unsafe homes were critical of the shelter.
"So you have abused kids placed with older kids who are (perpetrators). What kind of madness is that?" said Fred Pennix, an investigator and union leader. "I try to avoid bringing them there, but sometimes you have no choice. I've seen kids wait for weeks for a caseworker to get assigned. Meanwhile, the kid just sits there."
Karen Sneade, one of the nonprofit social service agency's vice presidents, said Aunt Martha's is a safe place with therapeutic programs, providing constant supervision and restricted access that separates children by age group and sex.
"Our goal here is to decrease the trauma they've been through, make sure they're safe and help them make good choices," she said.
Among the newspaper's findings:
•The center, which serves children who range in age from newborn to 21, often exceeded its allowed daily capacity of 50. Two months ago, DCFS agreed to increase it to 60.
On Oct. 8, two 6-year-old boys were moved to another floor reserved for older males because the 16 beds on the floor where they normally stay with infants and toddlers were filled. An email from Aunt Martha's on Oct. 11 said the shelter had 62 children, including 14 babies and toddlers.
•Police were called to the center 2,063 times in three years for complaints about runaways, according to reports. More than 80 fights as well as isolated incidents involving drugs, theft and vandalism were investigated during the same period.
•More than two dozen shelter teens were arrested since 2010 on misdemeanor and felony charges, according to police and court records. That does not include juvenile arrests, which are not public record.
Police used a Taser on a teenage boy Aug. 30 after they said he became violent in the shelter when questioned about a robbery.
The DCFS investigator who handled the La Grange girls' case said long shelter stays are not uncommon.
"I try to avoid that shelter at all cost," Aracely Madrigal said. "I beg my families to find any resource when I take custody because the placement caseworker will leave them at the shelter for months."
The state doesn't have a law regulating the length of shelter stays. But DCFS is required under a 1991 consent decree to keep it under 30 days in most cases. Experts, including DCFS Director Richard Calica, argue even that's too long because it's supposed to be emergency intervention, not placement. Ideally a child would get out of the shelter within 48 hours, he said.
Data provided by DCFS showed the state failed to achieve the 30-day standard with 417 children, or 13 percent, in the last four years. The data did not include the children's names and ages.
However, when the newspaper reviewed confidential census logs allowing it to track individual children in greater detail, it found that 24 percent stayed longer than 30 days during the nearly three-month period through November.
One-quarter were 6 years old or younger, including a 1-year-old boy and his 4-year-old brother. They spent 85 days there. At least six teens called the shelter home for more than 100 days, records indicate.
Overburdened shelters put children at further risk and are a symptom of larger systemic issues, such as a shortage of placement options and delays in finding permanent outcomes for children, experts say.
Other systemic DCFS problems detailed by the Tribune this past year include a clogged child abuse hotline, high worker caseloads, delayed day care inspections, staffing shortages and deep cuts to family services programs.
Profiles of children slain or hurt after DCFS had investigated their families raised questions about whether more could have been done to save them.
Calica, named director a year ago, said the crowding problem has eased in recent weeks after his administration began requiring supervisors to make sure caseworkers pursued all other resources before placing a child in the emergency shelter.
His reorganization plan to bolster the agency's depleted front-line staff includes deploying resource specialists to recruit more foster parents and find safe homes for the hardest-to-place children who remain in shelters the longest.
Those efforts have been hampered, however, by a nearly $90 million budget cut that is threatening hundreds of DCFS jobs. Calica has asked lawmakers to restore $38 million.
Unfortunately, he said, shelters are a necessary part of the system for now.
"There's no way you're not going to have problems there," he said. "It's not like running the Holiday Inn."
A pistol, 'some weed'
DCFS has contracts with private agencies to operate its shelters, where children stay temporarily until they can go home or live with a relative or foster parent. In some cases, court-appointed guardians are found or group living arrangements are made.
There are about a dozen shelters across the state, with seven in the Chicago area. The average combined stay for all of the state's shelters is nearly 41 days, according to agency data.
DCFS pays Aunt Martha's Youth Services Inc., an accredited agency, $6.8 million annually to run the Bronzeville shelter. Staff said about 1,400 children stay there yearly.
Aunt Martha's has been around for 40 years, providing services and care to children, teens and families in eight counties across northeastern Illinois.
Its Children's Reception Center opened in a former nursing home in late 2006. The youths who stay there come with different challenges. Calica said juvenile court judges are making DCFS responsible for an increasing number of delinquent youths by declaring them victims of "neglect" because their families won't take them back after they are incarcerated.
He said many of them were never in the system before, but DCFS is now responsible for their care.
Some shelter teens have gang ties, which raises concerns about violence.
The Tribune found no evidence of guns inside the facility, but two teens living there were arrested for having weapons elsewhere in the past two years.
One, a 19-year-old boy, admitted he bought a .38-caliber revolver along with "some weed" and a box of bullets for $300 because the people who killed his cousin also were after him, according to court records. The teen said he had the gun for five years.
In the other case, an 18-year-old who lived at the shelter was accused of threatening a police officer with a .25-caliber handgun in a nearby apartment, records show. The teen has bipolar disorder, intermittent explosive disorder and "mild mental retardation," court records said.
Aunt Martha's separates children and older teens among three floors based on age and sex. It has staff and unarmed, off-duty Chicago police working security. There isn't a metal detector, but backpacks and other belongings are checked.
The La Grange sisters are now living in a foster home, records show. They spent nearly five months at the shelter through Christmas 2011 during at least two stints, after an earlier foster home didn't work out.
Their former guardian has pleaded guilty to the abuse. She is serving a seven-year prison sentence.
The 11-year-old girl was friends with the daughter of La Grange resident Gabrielle Doubek. Doubek said she witnessed teens shouting and fighting in the shelter's hallway during three visits to see the girls. Doubek said many families tried to help. She recruited foster families, but DCFS rejected their offers to take the girls because of requirements that the sisters, whose primary language is Spanish, be placed with families of like ethnicity.
In a case of a large sibling group languishing at the shelter, five of Dana Smith's six children spent at least eight weeks there through fall, records show. She lost custody while living in Hyde Park last spring after police said they found the family living in an unsafe, garbage-filled apartment.
Smith said she was overwhelmed after her mother, who had helped her raise the children, suffered a stroke. The single mother pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment and said she is trying to get her children back.
She questioned how her oldest child suffered a black eye at the shelter. Aunt Martha's said DCFS investigated an incident matching the one described by Smith and determined the injury was not a result of abuse or neglect.
Weathering the storm
A long shelter stay lengthens the time a child lingers in the system without a permanent home, say experts such as Benjamin Wolf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
"When kids are backing up in the shelters, that's a symptom of when the system is broken," Wolf said.
The newspaper determined that 19 percent of kids at the Children's Reception Center had multiple stays.
DCFS Inspector General Denise Kane said her office has not had cause to investigate the facility. But she said babies should never be placed there. "It's outrageous," Kane said.
In one case, in the three months of confidential census records the newspaper obtained, a 6-month-old stayed at the shelter at least 26 days. In another, a 7-week-old boy had two stints totaling more than a month.
In a letter to Calica, the chief deputy of the Cook County public guardian's office voiced frustration.
Yvonne Zehr said a 19-year-old boy complained to her that he had to sleep on a chair at the shelter Nov. 1 because no beds were available.
Sneade, of Aunt Martha's, denied that a child slept overnight in a chair at the shelter.
It is not Aunt Martha's responsibility to place children, but, Sneade said, staff works with DCFS to find a bed if the Bronzeville shelter is full. Aunt Martha's also runs a smaller Aurora shelter for ages 7 to 21 with a 16-bed capacity.
The Bronzeville shelter actually has 74 available beds for emergencies, officials said.
Despite the problems, Sneade said there's a good child-to-staff ratio, myriad therapeutic programs and a high success rate for transporting children to their original school.
On a recent day, groups of children were playing video games, creating a "vision board" of future goals with an art therapist or napping under the watchful eyes of staff. There were plenty of computers too.
The halls were filled with holiday trimmings. Each of the 43 children there on Christmas had one present to open, DCFS officials said.
A roster of social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, medical doctors, nurses, dentists, nutritionists and other child professionals work at the shelter daily, Sneade said, adding that there are many planned activities and outings.
"We really put our heart and soul into this place," Sneade said. "I'm proud of what we do here."
'A bad idea'
But problems persist.
Staff is prohibited from locking in teens, so when they are late or run away, police are called, Sneade said. Officers are there daily.
Staff is required to notify DCFS when an "unusual incident" arises. Those can range anywhere from a child being suspended from school to psychiatric emergencies to a ward possessing a weapon.
Through Dec. 7, DCFS had received 1,686 notifications from the shelter for 2012, but the severity of the incidents could not be determined because the agency said it could not allow a review of the reports.
The newspaper obtained a few of them. In one case, two teenage girls complained that a shelter employee made sexual advances, according to a Nov. 22 report. DCFS is investigating, and the man has been placed on leave, Aunt Martha's officials said.
Advocates argue that these children deserve better.
They point to states such as Oklahoma, where the goal is to phase out the use of emergency shelters for children younger than 12 by 2014 through foster family recruitment. The change comes as part of a settlement with Children's Rights, a New York-based nonprofit. The group's efforts led to the elimination of emergency shelters in Georgia and Tennessee.
"Think how vulnerable an infant or a toddler is, then imagine them being removed from their home due to abuse or neglect, and next picture them in a chaotic shelter where they are being cared for in shifts, in some situations, for months," said Ira Lustbader, the group's associate director.
"It doesn't take much thought to realize that's a bad idea."
Calica agrees. His goal is to reduce the state's reliance on shelters through efforts to find other options for children in crisis.
"If I had the resources, I would do the best I could to come up with other alternatives and shrink the number of shelter beds that are needed," he said.
"It's supposed to be emergency intervention, not placement."
Tribune reporters David Jackson and Alex Richards contributed.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times