Judge Jorge Alonso signed off on the interim plan in federal court on Tuesday. The agreement is in response to an emergency motion filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The experts, Dr. Alan Morris and Deann Muehlbauer of the University of Illinois at Chicago, will inspect residential treatment centers, interview state wards and provide monthly reports on the practices and progress of the department.
“That’s just some immediate steps to begin to address the serious problems that we’ve raised in our emergency motion,” said ACLU attorney Ben Wolf.
One of the groups meant to be helped by the interim plan are kids who are stuck waiting behind bars because the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) can’t find an appropriate place for them to live.
A recent WBEZ investigation found that over a three-year period there were almost 350 instances in which a young person waited a week or more in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center because DCFS couldn’t place him. The longest wait was 190 days.
“As WBEZ reported, there are children trapped in correctional settings when they’ve been ordered released and I represent some of those children … and that’s a horrible thing,” Wolf said. “I’ve talked to some of those kids who are ordered released and then they’re still in a locked juvenile detention facility only because their state parent, the department, doesn’t have some place for them to live. I mean that’s really inexcusable and I’d like to start with those kinds of kids and see what we can do for them.”
At the same time, a recent series by the Chicago Tribune highlighted abuse and unsafe conditions at several residential treatment centers that provide care for state wards.
“The first steps are to start to look at the most troubled residential treatment centers and to figure out if we need to close them [or] if we can provide technical assistance to fix them,” Wolf said. “And if we can’t where the kids will go.”
Wolf acknowledged that these competing problems make for a tough situation for the department. Closing troubled residential treatment centers will mean even less available beds for the kids stuck waiting in jail or in psychiatric hospitals for placement.
“We’re gonna be struggling with shortages, and we’re going to be gluing together packages of services and placements that are the best we can do but are not perfect, and we have to be realistic about that,” Wolf said. “I think the solution has to be intensive services in home-like settings.”
DCFS spokesman Andrew Flach said in a statement that the department is “encouraged” by the interim agreement with the ACLU and looks forward to working with it and other stakeholders to “ensure the agreement is implemented to the satisfaction of the court and the children and families we serve.”
Patrick Smith is a WBEZ producer.