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Cook County demands payment from state for kids left waiting in jail

For the first time ever, Cook County is sending a bill to the State of Illinois for the cost of holding state wards left waiting at the juvenile jail by the Department of Children and Family Services.

The decision to demand reimbursement is part of a larger push back by the county against the human and financial costs of the failures of the state’s child welfare agency.

It comes after a recent WBEZ investigation found that the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) routinely leaves hundreds of kids stuck behind bars for weeks, or even months, after a judge has said they can go home. Because they are wards of the state, the kids can’t leave the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center until the department finds them proper placement.

Related: Federal Judge takes action on kids left in jail by DCFS

“The message is that we don’t care about them, and that we think their liberty isn’t an important issue. And I think that’s a terrible message to send to young people,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

And Preckwinkle said it’s a financial burden for the county.

“The obligation of every executive is to run their unit of government to the best of your ability. And that means you don’t cost-shift your financial obligations and burdens,” she said.

Preckwinkle said the impact on children is her main concern, “but the money is not a trivial matter either.”

That’s why Preckwinkle said she is glad to hear that outgoing Cook County Juvenile Detention Center administrator Earl Dunlap is sending a bill to the state.

“And I’d be happy to second the motion,” Preckwinkle said.

The invoice being sent to DCFS covers just two months—December and January—and it comes to $232,750.

The invoice is for 41 DCFS wards who spent a combined 665 days in jail after a judge told them they were free to go.

The juvenile jail is in Cook County Commissioner Robert Steele’s district. And he recognizes that at that rate, the cost could amount to $1.5 million a year.

“So that’s a huge burden to Cook County and its taxpayers,” Steele said.

Along with the invoice is a letter from juvenile jail administrator Dunlap to DCFS Director George Sheldon. In it, Dunlap blasts the department for the “agency’s willful disregard to juveniles’ constitutional rights.”

“Prolonged stays at [the juvenile jail] for children awaiting DCFS placement … can cause lasting damage to a youth,” Dunlap wrote.

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans oversees the juvenile jail. He said he’s not particularly concerned about which agency foots the bill.

“The counties pull from the same taxpayers that pay the taxes on a statewide basis, so the main thing is that we don’t want taxpayers to have to pay for anything unnecessarily,” Evans said.

WBEZ interviewed Evans in late February. He said on the day of the interview there were 12 state wards in the juvenile jail waiting on DCFS.

“Many of them are suffering already … many of them, they’ve been abused and neglected on one side and then they engage in some delinquent conduct on the other side. And so they’re already subjected to trauma in many instances and having them stay longer in a place they shouldn’t be in just exacerbates the problem,” Evans said.

DCFS spokesman Andrew Flach says his department has not yet received the invoice. But he’s acknowledged the issue, and said he believes the agency’s new leader will bring stability to the department.

“The governor has made it a priority to help turn the agency around, and that’s bringing someone in like Director George Sheldon …  to help us get the job done,” Flach said.

Cook County’s demand for repayment comes at a particularly bad time for the state government. Gov. Bruce Rauner is calling for massive cuts to close a multi-billion dollar budget gap.

Patrick Smith is a WBEZ producer and reporter.

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