State and county officials say they’re making real progress on the problem of kids stuck in jail because the state’s child welfare agency can’t find a place for them.
In February, WBEZ reported that over a three-year period, there were almost 350 instances where a state ward waited a week or more in jail because the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services couldn’t place them in a home.
Presiding Judge Michael Toomin said the story got the attention of Cook County’s juvenile judges.
“Some of the judges came to the point where they were about to hold a DCFS … worker in contempt of court for not getting the child out of the detention center,” Toomin said.
Faced with the judges’ anger, the state’s child welfare agency came up with a plan.
The state calls the program “Regenerations.”
Under this new plan, DCFS workers, county probation officers, outside experts and the young person meet together at the juvenile jail to decide on the right placement.
Then the state worker coordinates with outside agencies to make sure the kid gets placed quickly, and does well in his or her new home.
The people in charge of the program say the biggest difference is the involvement of the kids.
Mark Werner is the deputy chief of Cook County’s juvenile probation department. He has been in some of these meetings.
“In one of the ones I was in, you could see the youth understanding why they couldn’t stay where they were staying,” Werner said. “And hopefully that involvement and that agreement will result in him not running away and behaving himself in the foster home.”
While the state was implementing this new program, the juvenile judges made their own change. Now they allow the department to place kids in emergency shelters while they wait for a permanent placement.
These two changes have made a big difference.
County data shows a decline in the number of state wards stuck in jail because a home wasn’t found for them. The average wait time has gone from 70 days to 30 days.
“I can’t probably emphasize how important that is,” Werner said. “Leaving [state wards] in the detention center not only is wrong, but it’s detrimental to them. I mean they decompensate up there. They’re not getting the right treatment.”
Many agree this new state program is a good thing, but also that there is more work to be done.
Most of the reduction in wait times is because of kids getting out of jail and being sent to emergency shelters. There are still a lot of kids waiting for stable, permanent homes. They’re just doing that waiting in a shelter instead of the jail.
“For the most part I would rather see a kid in an emergency shelter than in jail, but structurally it’s the same problem,” said Bruce Boyer.
Boyer is the head of the ChildLaw Clinic at Loyola University in Chicago.
He said DCFS shelters do not provide the sort of care and stability kids need.
“It is a chronic problem and I hope we’re making some headway, but it certainly doesn’t mean we can stop paying attention to the importance of trying to recruit foster parents and do a better job … for all the kids that get stuck in any form of institutional care longer than they need to be there,” Boyer said.
State officials say they are working on the needed structural reforms.
Mike Ruppe is the deputy director of operations for the department. He said the Regenerations program is working, and he hopes they’ll be able to expand it.
“Our goal is to place them in a community home-based setting, and try to avoid detention or temporary shelter placement,” he said.
Ruppe also acknowledged there is more work to be done.
“We need to be continually … assessing the need for expansion of programs or new programs to be developed,” he said.
He points to a recent Request for Proposals for a new concept in Illinois called “therapeutic foster homes.” The idea is to find more places for high-needs kids, like the state wards who end up in jail.
That initiative is part of a federal consent decree the state entered into last month, aimed at improving care for state wards. It calls for the department to get kids out of jails and emergency shelters, among other reforms.
Leonard Dixon, who recently took over as superintendent of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, said things are already improving because of the increased attention.
“Now the detention center is more engaged and DCFS is more engaged,” he said. “People just let things linger … and that’s just the honest truth. And nobody really focused on it.”
But, Dixon said, they are focusing on it now.
Patrick Smith is a WBEZ producer and reporter. Follow him @pksmid.