A group of Illinois families on Tuesday urged the state to expand services for children who are in crisis and have nowhere to turn. This comes after WBEZ reported this week on an increase of kids with mental and behavioral health issues at a time when there is a shortage of facilities that can treat them.
The Illinois State Board of Education has a list of approved residential treatment facilities that school districts can send students with severe needs. But parents and advocates say there are no residential facilities available for students requiring intensive mental health or behavioral support.
“We would hope that ISBE, the governor and the other state agencies would move immediately for those families to resolve their problem right away,” said attorney Matt Cohen, who represents families with children with special needs and held a press conference to call attention to this issue.
Peter Jaswilko has been looking for a residential facility that will accept his 15-year-old son Kyle, who has autism. Kyle has been in and out of the hospital the past several months for violent episodes. At the news conference, Jaswilko said his son had kicked his wife in the face while she was getting him ready for school.
“We made arrangements for a pickup directly from the hospital because we’re safe when he’s at school. We’re not safe when he comes home,” he said. “He’s going to be home at 3pm. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Cohen argued that the state could take a number of steps for families like Jaswilko’s, including expanding its approved list of residential facilities, putting in place an emergency placement process and providing extra funding for kids that require intense one-on-one supervision.
“These kids are the most severely impaired, many of them are violent,” he said. “It’s hard work for the families. It’s hard work for the staff who are working with the kids, and to expect that subminimum, minimum wages are going to be sufficient to attract staff, let alone quality staff, is unrealistic.”
Cohen also says out-of-state facilities have said Illinois is difficult to work with. He said the state board of education needs to streamline its facility approval process to expand its options. He also says the state needs a point person who can oversee the various state agencies that play a part in placing children in residential care.
About 1,400 kids are currently in some form of residential care through one of three state agencies, according to data given to WBEZ. It’s unclear if there are other students that are unaccounted for. The state board of education could not say how many students are currently waiting for a bed.
“It is almost a hear no evil, speak no evil approach,” Cohen said. “If they don’t tackle a problem, then they don’t have to be held accountable for how they deal with it.”
ISBE told WBEZ it has reached out to residential providers that are not on the approved list and shared information about the approval process. But Cohen feels that’s too little, too late.
“Outreach typically is happening only when the facility approaches them, not on any sort of proactive or deliberate basis to identify where they need facilities and to recruit facilities,” he said.
State agencies concede that staffing has been a challenge at residential facilities, mirroring a national problem. The Department of Children and Family Services says the greatest challenge has been hiring for direct care positions. The agency says it’s been able to increase average wages and funding for room and board.
“Recognizing the challenges DCFS is facing in hiring and retaining employees, DCFS changed the way it not only recruits staff but also how it works to keep staff as they grow, while also working to ensure they feel supported in an environment that can be demanding or even overwhelming,” DCFS wrote to WBEZ.
Cohen says ISBE has on occasion made single case emergency decisions to approve residential placements without a formal process in place.
“They have the capacity to change how they handle emergencies today, if they had the will to do it, that doesn’t require legislative change,” he said. “Beyond that, we hope that within the next 60 days that there will be legislation introduced, and that the legislature will act.”
Meanwhile, Peter Jaswilko is going through a legal process now to get his school district to pay for Kyle to attend a residential facility that is not on ISBE’s approved list. Kyle could potentially start the program in January.
“I do worry that if the district or the state won’t take action, his spot will be eliminated,” Jaswilko said.