Children who become wards of the state in Illinois have for years been wrongly confined to juvenile detention after a judge orders their release, depriving them of “the everyday joys, experiences, and opportunities of childhood,” according to a federal lawsuit filed Thursday.
The lawsuit accuses Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Director Marc Smith, who was hand-picked by Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, and his predecessors of failing to ensure that wards of the state are placed in adequate residential facilities, leaving them instead in juvenile detention centers.
The problem has been ongoing for more than 30 years, according to the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of several minors the lawsuit says were unjustly treated by the agency.
“The damage caused by unjustly incarcerating these children is tremendous and undeniable. These children are isolated from loved ones and support systems,” the 34-page lawsuit states. “They are deprived of the everyday joys, experiences, and opportunities of childhood. Indeed, children incarcerated in juvenile jail are confined to their cells for the majority of the day, have limited opportunities to exercise, and are exposed to unnecessary violence and dangers.”
DCFS for more than three decades has operated under federal court oversight due to litigation from the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois calling for reform in the child welfare system. The department made slow but steady progress in the 1990s, but then entered an era of massive turnover and controversy, with 14 different agency leaders from 2003 to 2019.
“Republican, Democratic, it is a bipartisan problem and now is the time to fix it because part of that accountability is the children are suffering the harm,” Russell Ainsworth, a lawyer with the firm Loevy & Loevy, said at a news conference in the West Loop. “If you continue to harm the children then we will sue you and we will force you to compensate those children who have been harmed because they are the ones who are bearing the cost of these policies.
“The only fair result is that the children be compensated, the practice end, and this never happen again to any child ever again.”
Speaking to reporters on a call from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Pritzker said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment on its allegations.
DCFS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said in a statement that the agency “works as quickly as possible to place youth in appropriate and safe settings.”
“Of course, we can only place youth where we have availability that meets their needs, which is why the department is also working to expand the capacity that was hollowed out under previous administrations,” McCaffrey said.
He also said DCFS has reduced the number of youths kept in detention centers despite previously being cleared to be released.
In fiscal year 2022, DCFS had 57 youths who were allowed to be released from custody but forced to remain in detention centers because there was no residential placement for them. That figure was down from 67 in fiscal year 2021 and 64 in fiscal year 2020, McCaffrey said.
Children are put in DCFS care if there is a legal basis for the state to assume guardianship. For example, the agency will take responsibility of a child if there’s sufficient evidence that the child has been abused or neglected, among other reasons.
The lawsuit states that DCFS must house each child “in the least restrictive (most family-like) setting that is in the child’s best interest.”
One of the plaintiffs, Janiah Caine, now 18, was held while still a minor in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center for more than five months even though a judge at that time had ordered her release.
During that time, Caine was unable to go to her grandmother’s funeral because she couldn’t get hold of her DCFS caseworker, she told reporters.
“My caseworker wasn’t answering the phone and she wasn’t reaching out to me,” said Caine.
She also said she didn’t feel safe at the detention center.
“The staff don’t make you feel safe either. They’re not respectful to you. They treat you like nothing,” Caine said. “I felt horrible. I felt so many emotions, like, anger, sadness.”
According to the lawsuit, another minor was kept in the detention center for 5 ½ months despite having a court order in place for his release. The minor, who has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and another issue affecting his intellectual function, was not able to receive adequate care for his development and rehabilitation, the lawsuit stated.
Ainsworth, the plaintiffs’ attorney, called the situation “a very simple problem with a simple solution,” which is for DCFS to find more residential space for these children.
“All we need are more beds. It’s just a simple mathematic equation. We do not have enough beds for children,” he said. “We have a budget for the beds and yet DCFS refuses to make those beds available for kids.”
Tribune reporter Dan Petrella contributed.