GREY CITY

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April 6, 2021

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10:56 p.m.

The Illinois Child Welfare System: Under Stress, Confronting COVID-19

A snowy winter day in Hyde Park.

A snowy winter day in Hyde Park.

Matthew Lee / The Chicago Maroon

Note: All children’s names have been changed to protect their privacy. Quotes have been edited for clarity.  

The children who come into contact with the juvenile justice and child welfare systems are among the most vulnerable in Chicago. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) have long been under pressure to reform, but they are facing unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Maroon spoke and corresponded with 20 activists, caseworkers, parents, and government officials about how the pandemic is affecting some of the city’s most at-risk children and how the two agencies are responding to the crisis. This is the first of three installments. 

While watching TV one Sunday morning, Sandra Minter saw an advertisement encouraging Chicagoans to enroll as foster parents. She decided to call. For her, the decision was not sudden. “I’ve had it in my spirit for about 20 years,” she explained. She didn’t have the time when she was a CTA bus driver, but now she is retired. 

Within months, she was a licensed foster mother working with Ada S. McKinley Community Services, a private fostering agency. She welcomed her new daughter, Julia, into her home in August 2020. Minter described how Julia was when she first arrived: “Afraid, quiet, slept a lot, cried a lot. Unsure. She was in a foreign place. No trust.” 

Now, after a few months, Julia is neither timid nor quiet having settled in to Minter’s stable, loving home. She spends time with her aunt and siblings regularly and plays with Minter’s grandchildren. “She’s very cheerful. Dancing, she dances a lot. She’s very talkative. She likes to help with anything you need done. She always wants to know if she can help,” Minter said. “And she’s a beautiful kid. That’s the only thing I can say—she’s a beautiful kid.”

But many children in Julia’s position have not had the same luck. Many children in state custody linger for weeks and months in emergency shelters and psychiatric wards because there are not enough foster families to take them in. The deficit long predates COVID-19, but the pressure that the pandemic has placed on foster caregivers, natural parents, and DCFS has exacerbated the problem. 

Only a year out from the onset of the pandemic, the extent to which COVID-19 has impacted foster children is empirically unclear. However, conversations with advocates, researchers, and employees of DCFS have revealed that the pandemic has put pressure on families and exacerbated systematic issues in the Illinois child welfare system. 

“A Pressure-Cooking Situation”: Reporting Disrupted While Families Are Under Stress 

In April 2020, the DCFS child abuse hotline received just 47 percent of the number of calls it received in April 2019. Confined to their homes, children were not seeing the teachers, police officers, and medical professionals who typically bring any concerns they have about well-being to DCFS’s attention. Last March was also the first time national abuse hotlines received a majority of calls from minors reporting on their own behalf. 

Julia Strehlow works for the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC), a national nonprofit that supports children who have been sexually abused. The foster system in Chicago is a hybrid public-private system which depends on nonprofits like CAC. Every report of sexual abuse that the Chicago Police Department makes or that is called in through the DCFS hotline goes through her office. 

In the first few months of the pandemic, Strehlow saw a sharp decline in the number of reports coming through CAC—a worrying trend. 

“There’s still definitely a concern that child abuse and sexual abuse are underreported right now because children are not around people that typically might be a reporter of that kind of abuse,” she said. “Child sexual abuse thrives in isolation and secrecy. Eighty percent of cases of child sexual abuse are perpetrated with no witness of any kind. No eyewitness, no camera, no nothing. So the sheer number of people that are living in a confined space—the sheer number of children that might be isolated with an abuser—really just makes the risk go up.” 

On average, the children whom CAC helps are only eight years old. They struggle to put what has happened to them into words. Before the pandemic, teachers and doctors who interact with children may have noticed new behaviors that led them to check in with children, but these subtle, nonverbal changes are hard to detect over Zoom. CAC is trying to mitigate this problem by raising awareness among parents and teachers and advising them that communicating openly with children is key to reducing this risk. 

Strehlow explained that many of the cases she has worked on during the pandemic have reached her office through alternative pathways. Instead of teachers calling in with their concerns, families themselves are going into police departments and asking for help. Those reports are less likely to be dismissed as groundless. By September, the number of calls had rebounded, but it was still 18 percent below the 2019 volume. 

Only a subset of the callers on the child abuse hotline report sexual abuse. The hotline serves as a way to intervene in all forms of suspected child maltreatment, including neglect or physical abuse. In 2018, more than 60 percent of calls nationwide reported neglect, which is consistently the leading form of maltreatment. Neglect does not necessarily mean that a child is being left alone; “environmental neglect” can include mismanaged waste and garbage in the household, exposed wires, rodent infestations, structural hazards, and other characteristics. Often, the category of environmental neglect overlaps with the effects of poverty, and some low-income parents struggle to find homes that meet DCFS’s standards. 

In response to the precipitous drop in calls to its child abuse hotline, DCFS restructured its reporting system. Last October, it launched a new, streamlined online interface optimized for smartphone users. 

“The earlier suspected abuse or neglect is reported, the earlier we can connect the family to services and supports they need to keep their children safely at home,” Marc Smith, the acting director of DCFS, said in an October press release. 

Despite disrupted reporting pathways, the number of youth in DCFS’s custody has actually increased significantly during the pandemic. DCFS reported having 18,549 youth in care at the end of 2019. As of this March, there were more than 21,000. 

Every child who becomes a ward of the state of Illinois has a right to their own legal representation, which his office provides. Charles Golbert, the Cook County public guardian, represents youth involved with the child welfare system in court and advocates for systemic reforms at DCFS. He is concerned that the pandemic has created a “pressure-cooking situation.” 

“Kids are isolated at home, families are isolated at home, under circumstances that literature correlates with higher incidence of abuse and neglect, such as stressors about money, stressors about finances, stressors about jobs, worries about health,” Golbert said. 

Echoing Strehlow, Golbert attributed the initial decline in reports to the fact that children were not being seen by as many mandated reporters. Meanwhile, he said, “cases that are actually coming to court, which are the serious cases, are actually going up.” 

These community-wide stressors are often beyond DCFS’s control. “If nobody’s reporting child abuse to DCFS until the kid’s in the hospital with something very serious, there’s not very much that DCFS can do,” he said. 

The most serious cases end with a child dead. This January, the Illinois Office of the Attorney General published its annual report on cases of child deaths in families that had previous DCFS involvement. The report touted the 17 percent decrease in deaths in 2020 as a victory, bringing the total back to the state average. But Golbert sees these statistics as anything but a reason to celebrate. “As Illinoisans, we can never, ever accept an ‘average’ year of 100-plus child death cases,” he said. 

In the first two weeks of 2021, he observed a large increase in child deaths. Six children—most of them infants—died while they were home with their families. At least two of the children had prior involvement with DCFS. Citing confidentiality concerns, the agency refused to give him more information about the cases. According to the Office of the Public Guardian, it is too soon to tell whether the spike indicates a larger trend related to child maltreatment during the pandemic. 

A Shortage of Placements: Stalled Progress on a Systemic Issue 

As the Cook County public guardian, Golbert is the DCFS watchdog and is often the first to criticize the department. But having observed DCFS navigate the chaos of the pandemic, he said it has risen to the occasion. From his perspective, it kept foster and natural parents informed while coordinating a difficult transition to remote services. Still, the combination of disrupted reporting pathways and increased stress on families has put pressure on the system. But the pandemic has also exacerbated DCFS’s chronic shortage of safe homes for children in state care. 

“When COVID-19 started a year ago,” he explained, “DCFS was not exactly running on eight supercharged, fully souped cylinders.… So all the problems that DCFS was trying to address, all the systemic problems, all that’s been on hold for a year and getting worse.” 

DCFS does not have the capacity to safely house all of the children in its care. Over the last eight years, DCFS has eliminated more than 500 placements in residential centers, which are more commonly called group homes. DCFS shut down many residential homes following a damning 2014 Chicago Tribune investigation that revealed youth were routinely abused, raped, and drawn into prostitution at some of the largest state-funded residential homes. 

Many of those eliminated placements were classified as “specialized,” which means that they are reserved for some of the most vulnerable children who need the highest level of support. Many foster parents are not able to care for children with serious behavioral or medical issues or a history of extreme trauma. However, Golbert explained that when DCFS cut its residential capacity, it did not increase its specialized foster home capacity, creating a deficit that continues to this day. 

DCFS is still struggling to build up the capacity to safely house young people who need heightened levels of care. There are simply not enough beds. Golbert explained that the state has depended on out-of-state placements, a last resort that isolates youth from their parents and siblings. Children are routinely spending weeks and months at emergency shelters designed to house them for 24 hours. Others are languishing in juvenile detention centers and psychiatric wards. 

Last November, DCFS announced that an $866,000 investment would be used to add 31 new beds for foster youth in the state. 

 “In recent years Illinois has lost more than 500 residential beds which served some of our most vulnerable youth, and rebuilding that capacity is imperative as the need for high-quality care for our children and young adults in care continues to grow,” Smith said in a DCFS press release. The Maroon contacted DCFS to ask for more details, but without success.

“It’s wonderful they created 30 beds,” said Golbert. “But it’s really putting a Band-Aid on a gushing wound.” 

During the pandemic, Golbert has seen that more youth are being held in psychiatric wards long after there was any medical reason to keep them there. Before the pandemic, this was already a serious issue: Between July 2019 and June 2020, over 300 children were kept in psychiatric wards long after a doctor decided that they were ready to be discharged. On average, they spent nearly two extra months in psychiatric wards, even though emergency hospitalization for a psychiatric patient normally lasts only two weeks. Foster care youth have been staying in psychiatric wards even longer than before the pandemic because there are fewer safe homes in which to place them. Golbert said that they spend so little time outside that they need vitamin D supplements. They cannot attend classes or spend time with their friends. 

“There’s not a whole lot that says to a kid, ‘You don’t matter,’ [more] than being forced to be locked up in a psych hospital for months and months for no reason whatsoever other than that your guardian has nowhere to put you,” he said.

“It's just outrageous, and it’s a kid’s life,” Golbert said. “You can’t steal months from a kid’s life. They’re supposed to be learning in school, socializing.” 

Normally foster children have regular visits with their natural parents and siblings. However, psychiatric wards are congregate care settings with medical staff coming and going, and acutely vulnerable to infections. During the pandemic, children in psychiatric wards have been prohibited from seeing their families. Golbert said it was a “minor miracle” that the foster youth in these facilities have not contracted the virus. The Maroon contacted DCFS to get more precise information on how the pandemic has affected foster children in psychiatric wards, but no one agreed to speak. 

“No progress has been [made] for the last year,” became Golbert’s refrain as he detailed DCFS’s inability to give many of its vulnerable wards a safe, stable home. The biggest problem, he said, was the agency’s shortage of beds. 

“If [it] were to address that, that would solve the issue of kids being in box-like hospitals. That would solve the problem of kids languishing in what are supposed to be emergency shelters for weeks and months. That would solve the DCFS’s gross overreliance on out-of-state placements—just addressing [its] shortage of residential placements and group homes would address all of these other problems,” he said. 

When we spoke in January, Golbert and his office were in the process of suing DCFS on behalf of the children trapped in psychiatric wards. Golbert and the other plaintiffs filed their first complaint against the agency in December 2018, but DCFS repeatedly asked for continuances that postponed any trial. “There will be years and years of procedural rigamarole, but eventually we’ll be able to address the merits of the case and hopefully get some change [through this] litigation,” Golbert said. 

In March, the court denied DCFS’s motion to dismiss a federal class-action suit that Golbert’s office filed on behalf of the young people. A statement from Golbert’s office read, “The court’s ruling brings us a substantial step closer to achieving justice for these children.” 

Residential facilities have the benefit of stable shelter, but they can be difficult for youth and are often mismanaged. During the pandemic, isolation has made it more difficult to work through behavioral issues. Kelly Veronda is a DCFS caseworker based in the Quad Cities. One of the teenagers she works with lived in a residential center while he was on probation. 

“He went months and months without being able to have any in-person contact because where his facility is located was considered a hotspot for COVID,” she said. “So he had worked through the majority of his treatment but then was never able to apply any of it in a home setting, and now that some of the modifications [to place him with a family] recently have been made, he’s really struggling in the home setting.” 

Creating more openings in group homes may seem like the most straightforward solution to DCFS’s housing shortage. However, research indicates that children placed with families have better experiences and outcomes than children placed in group homes. In 2018, the Family First Prevention Services Act was enacted into federal law. It reflected the latest research around child welfare and used federal funding requirements to pressure states to shift their child welfare systems from group home placements to family placements.  

This transition may in part explain the shortage in placements for youth in state care. “Any time you implement a broad, sweeping change like that, there are going to be unintended consequences, I think, particularly as it relates to the implementation,” said Dana Weiner, a senior policy fellow at Chapin Hall, a University of Chicago research center that informs caseworkers, community members, and agency directors on issues related to children and families. 

Weiner said that a better solution would be to recruit more foster parents for adolescents and children with special needs. 

“Traditionally, the more services kids need…the more likely they are to be in residential center care,” she said. “But you can wrap all kinds of services around kids if you have sufficient capacity in the community and you have foster parents who are prepared to parent kids who have intensive needs.” 

Looking for Family Placements 

DCFS is under pressure to find more licensed foster parents at a time when many are hesitant to take more children into their homes. Veronda explained that many foster parents are older and are concerned about infection. With so many schools and daycares closed, others feel that their work schedules prevent them from taking in children. “In my area,” Veronda said, “the private agencies are turning down a very high number of cases. So of course DCFS doesn’t get to turn down that many cases.” 

The pandemic has also stalled many of DCFS’s efforts to recruit new foster parents. “Typically our research and recruitment unit would do a lot of outreach—community events or churches, things like that. And, of course, that’s come to a halt because of the pandemic,” Deborah Lopez, a spokesperson for DCFS, explained in an interview with The Maroon

Moreover, the risk of infection and the economic fall-out of the pandemic make welcoming a foster child a more difficult decision than it would be in other years. 

Private agencies have faced the same dilemma. Ada S. McKinley, which works with DCFS, saw a 33 percent increase in the number of children directed to it.  

Ada S. McKinley has tried to find new parents by appealing directly to the people of Chicago through an advertising campaign. That was how it had reached Minter, Julia’s foster mother. Most recently, it organized a campaign during the holiday season. Nichole Robinson-Anyaso, Ada S. McKinley’s vice president of child welfare services, explained that these campaigns have incredibly high stakes: The more people sign up as foster parents, the fewer children remain trapped in Ada S. McKinley’s emergency shelter on the South Side. 

“They are the unseen victims of COVID-19 who’ve faced the trauma of being removed from their homes in the midst of the pandemic,” Jamal Malone, the CEO of Ada S. McKinley, said in a press release

“We have been able to spend really, really long days and nights finding places for children, so we have not had to have children sleep in our offices,” Robinson-Anyaso explained. She added that this was not the case across the state but would not elaborate on her statement. Despite criticism, DCFS has used its offices as a last resort for housing a child for decades. In 2019, a judge ordered that DCFS never leave a child to sleep in its offices for more than one night. Within two weeks, the agency had violated the stipulation. 

The campaign was a success. Ada S. McKinley received 50 inquiries. Within weeks, it conducted three well-attended virtual orientations and started training six new foster parents. 

An Opportunity for Reform 

Children often become involved with the child welfare system because they are hungry, homeless, or left home alone. Abuse and poverty are often lumped into one category, and poverty can force parents to make difficult decisions. When child care is not affordable and income is indispensable, neglect becomes more likely. 

Weiner explained that economic recessions, such as the one induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, are known to make child maltreatment more prevalent. “Unemployment and poverty are such big predictors of fluctuation rates—not at the individual level but at the community level—in the rate of child maltreatment,” she explained. There is no reason why the COVID-19 recession would be any different. Instead of helping families meet their basic needs, however, DCFS intervention is often punitive. “We’re punishing families for being poor,” she said. 

Research shows that children from poor and Black families are overrepresented in the DCFS system. In Cook County, 70 percent of the youth in care are Black, even though only 23.8 percent of the general population is Black. 

These statistics accord with the long history of racial inequality in the child welfare system. Historian Laura Briggs has documented how white politicians mobilized racist stereotypes about “welfare mothers” to pass punitive laws that targeted Black women’s families. In the 1960s and 1970s, the child welfare system removed children from their homes to punish Black mothers for having children out of wedlock and for struggling to provide for their families because of poverty. 

DCFS has incorporated “cultural competence” into its training modules for social workers. Weiner explained that practices are in place to include community members to liaise between families and protective services. “DCFS has undertaken for many years, decades probably even, to build awareness of systemic bias in decision-making,” she said. 

Still, Weiner explained that changing the culture of DCFS has been more difficult than instituting policies to train employees to be aware of bias. Black families continue to come into contact with protective services at a disproportionate rate, and the pandemic has not offered any reprieve on the issue.  

For Weiner, the pandemic-related recession is a more pressing concern than the disruption in reporting mechanisms. “I’m less concerned [about] the decrease in teacher reports,” Weiner said. “And more concerned about the economic stressors. I think one of the things that has opened the door is pursuing a different way of thinking about how we leverage teachers’ engagement with families.” 

Weiner and her colleagues at Chapin Hall conducted a study on the pandemic’s impact on the child welfare system. Education personnel make approximately 20 percent of the calls to the child abuse hotline, but only 11 percent of their calls later result in child maltreatment cases after DCFS looks into their concerns. Reports routinely dip every summer, when children are out of school. In the fall, cases do not spike above the average, which reveals that teachers are not making up for what they missed over the summer. 

Weiner explained that the decline in hotline calls may actually be sparing families unnecessary investigations. A DCFS investigation often involves calling family members, doctors, and teachers to ask about how a parent treats their child. The investigator will also likely visit the home to make sure that it is safe. These measures are often necessary to determine whether a hotline call’s allegations are in fact serious. In the majority of cases, though, the allegations are unsubstantiated. When teachers are worried about the welfare of their students, calling the DCFS hotline is one of the only ways they can intervene. “What we should be doing,” said Warner, “is giving teachers multiple pathways to get families services and supports.” 

“Teachers’ eyes on families and connection with kids is something we should definitely use to understand what family needs are,” Weiner said. “If we only give teachers the option of calling the hotline which initiates an investigation, that’s kind of missing the boat.” 

Weiner emphasized that the pandemic has shown that DCFS should focus on “strategies that provide concrete support to families, like money, child care, food, housing assistance.” She argued that the pandemic’s impact on families has challenged the child welfare system to shift away from surveillance and towards preventative intervention that helps families meet their basic needs. She and her colleagues are advocating for DCFS and its partner agencies to focus on broad services rather than surveillance and targeted intervention. 

Her recommendations accord with ongoing efforts to reform child welfare services nationwide. In 2018, the Family First Act restructured federal funding to favor preventative services and early intervention. Funds that had been earmarked for foster care can now be spent on services ranging from substance abuse treatment for parents to subsidies for grandparents who are taking care of their grandchildren. 

Weiner and her colleagues have called for a broader, inter-agency response. DCFS has become the triage point for a safety net that cannot meet families’ basic needs. Although DCFS is the first to deal with much of the harm that the pandemic has inflicted on families, it cannot solve these problems alone. 

“People call the DCFS hotline for things that are secondary to poverty,” Weiner said. “What we’ve learned especially acutely in this year is that child welfare has become the de facto safety net, meaning the [actual] safety net is broken or insufficient.” 

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