DCFS director: ‘Stuck Kids’ case is an issue that’s been brewing for years

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SPRINGFIELD – Director of the Department of Child and Family Services, Marc Smith, has faced nine cases of contempt of court in recent weeks for failing to comply with a judge’s order. place the state’s most vulnerable children in an appropriate setting.

In a recent interview with Capitol News Illinois, he described the extent of the problem and why it’s not new or easy to fix.

Contempt charges relate to children in state care who are held in psychiatric or other facilities beyond medical necessity. Children represent a small but challenging population for the child welfare agency, Smith said. Of the 20,000 children in the care of DCFS, Smith said about 0.2% were considered detained beyond medical necessity – often referred to as “stranded children”.

“These kids are the outliers of the outliers,” Smith said.

Children hospitalized in psychiatry are in secure facilities, behind locked doors most of the day, going out for an hour a day. Most are out of school and unable to participate in extracurricular activities.

Difficulties placing children in more appropriate facilities, Smith said, have been compounded by the state’s prolonged divestment from DCFS, the COVID-19 pandemic and shortcomings by other state agencies.

Gov. JB Pritzker has repeatedly pointed to the fact that 500 placements for children in need have been cut amid a two-year budget stalemate under former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. That’s partly because DCFS support services are run by private sector groups and nonprofits, which have cut specialist programs, including programs for children with mental health issues or retardation. development, in response to funding uncertainty.

Smith took over from DCFS in 2019 at a time when the agency was trying to convince outside groups to consider reinvesting in Illinois and adding programs to support children and their families.

Then the pandemic hit, increasing the number of children requiring specialized care and straining the system even further.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that COVID-19 is impacting children with disabilities by driving them away from gathering places, such as school. Students with disabilities may not have had access to necessary supports during the pandemic, leading to disruption in their behavioral therapies and education.

And their parents, who the data shows generally experience higher rates of stress, depression and anxiety than other parents, had to provide round-the-clock care for their children amid other pandemic stressors. .

From March to October 2020, mental health-related emergency room visits increased by 24% for children aged 5 to 11 and by 31% for those aged 12 to 17 compared to emergency room visits in 2019, according to the data from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite these increases, the state was still behind in the support services available for children ready to be discharged from hospitals to residential care or family-type facilities.

As a result, Smith said, children were lingering in these settings rather than time-limited, treatment-intensive intervention programs that would allow them to stabilize and then return to their families with the supports and services. required.

Even with recent budget increases — Pritzker and lawmakers have increased DCFS’s budget by at least $100 million every year since 2019, including $250 million this year — the effort to rebuild lost investments has been slower than decline. From 2019 to 2021, DCFS added 90 specialty placements. So far this year, DCFS has added 37 more. In the next 60 days, 24 additional locations will become available, Smith said.

“We are working very hard to identify qualified residential treatment providers, increasing the skill set of providers and ensuring that there is better case management and education and development areas for these children. “Smith said.

Additionally, Smith said, more than a third of these children are in care because their parents are unable to find support services to get the children home. These are parents who want to care for their child, who are not accused of child abuse, but who do not have the help they need to provide that care after their children are discharged from an institution. medical.

“As a parent, it would be heartbreaking to turn your child over to a government agency because you couldn’t provide the proper care,” Smith said.

That means the state’s approach must go beyond DCFS, he said.

A group from DCFS, the State Board of Education, and the Departments of Human Services, Health and Family Services, and Juvenile Justice is exploring ways to improve children’s behavioral health through interagency communication, creating new programs and improving existing ones.

In October, Illinois was approved to participate in a new federal program through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Children’s Bureau. The Family First Title IV-E prevention program was created by the Federal Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. Illinois is one of 17 states and the District of Columbia to submit its plan under law and have it approved.

Smith said it would increase funding and flexibility for Illinois to run programs to strengthen and help families keep children safe at home and out of foster care.

The five-year plan, developed with DCFS and 200 service providers, will create programs for parenting skills, addiction treatment and mental health services, among others. The goal is to keep children out of foster care while improving the quality of care and reducing the time spent in state care.

“It will allow us to reinvent child welfare in Illinois,” Smith said.

The nine contempt charges brought by Cook County Judge Patrick T. Murphy, who is presiding over the ‘stranded kids’ case, have made headlines and come under intense scrutiny, including appeals to DCFS audits and the ousting of Smith.

Agency sources, however, said Smith’s departure could undermine the confidence of private agencies at a time when the state is engaged in negotiations for increased programming.

Pritzker continues to support Smith, saying his resignation won’t solve anything.

While Smith was fined $1,000 daily for each day a child remains confined in an improper facility, an appeals court suspended those citations and fines. It has been more than two weeks since Smith received a new contempt citation.

The “Stuck Kids” roll, meanwhile, continues to meet every Thursday in Cook County Court for children in state custody who are in mental institutions for weeks, months and, for at least one child, for nearly a year after doctors released them.

Charles Golbert, the Cook County Public Guardian, is one of DCFS’s most vocal critics. He gave voice to the extreme crisis of the shortage of placement. Last year, DCFS forced 356 of its children to languish unnecessarily in closed psychiatric hospitals for an average of 55 days each, totaling more than 50 years of children’s lives in just one year.

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