Aaron Goldstein: Illinois DCFS needs transformational change to end harmful family separations

The following op-ed was published in the Chicago Tribune on October 11, 2023.

This month, Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Director Marc Smith resigned. The conversation has since focused on DCFS failures to protect children in its care.

Implicit is a call for the agency to receive more funding, grow bigger, investigate more families and bring more children into the child welfare system. What is missing from the media coverage is a recognition of the harm done by a system that routinely breaks up families.

As we turn the page on this chapter in DCFS history, the conversation cannot center solely on expansion of the system. We must face up to the fact that removal of children from their families fails the children and their families.

Once in the system, children struggle to find positive outcomes. A 2022 study by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union found “removing a child from their parents, even for a short time, can be highly traumatizing and have long-term consequences.” The report also says that sometimes “children in out-of-home placements experience maltreatment, including sexual or physical abuse, which causes further trauma.” In addition, mothers whose children are taken by DCFS are often survivors of domestic violence who are further victimized by losing their children. They are also subject to intrusive drug testing and psychological evaluations.

The law office of the Cook County public defender sees these bad outcomes every day. We represent the overwhelming majority of parents whose children have been screened into child protection court. Our office also ends up representing a significant number of kids (the same kids taken previously) whose unmet needs result in them becoming our clients in the juvenile justice system. A study by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention analyzing Cook County, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and New York City concluded that “at least half of juvenile justice youth have touched the child welfare system at some point in their lives.”

The child welfare system disproportionally targets African American families and communities. According to DCFS’ own data, in Cook County, African American children make up approximately 70% of those in care, even though the county’s Black population share is 23%. Is it our belief that African Americans are worse parents than their white counterparts? Or does this system target families of color, then produce loathsome results for kids after they are taken away?

At some point, we must question why we continue to pump more money into this vicious, discriminatory cycle, to the tune of $2 billion a year. While we cannot put a price tag on our children’s safety, we must ask ourselves, shouldn’t we expect better outcomes?

We urge the governor to appoint a director who brings a critical eye to the structure of DCFS and to its role in separating families. The answer is not more family separation or a bigger budget to expand the investigatory arm of DCFS. Rather, the focus must be on transformational change to a system that causes long-lasting negative impacts on children and their families and drastically weakens communities as well.

The system cannot continue to do more damage to families, children and communities. We cannot be content with creating worse results than those we are trying to prevent.

Without new expectations, we are doomed to repeat the failures of the past. The child welfare system has a tortured history with roots in slavery and Native American genocide. As the system grew and converted to a more race-neutral appearance, the impacts remained the same: African Americans were disproportionately represented in the system. African American families are actively being separated by the government every day.

When our government separates immigrant families at our southern border, there is well-founded and understandable outrage. That same outrage is justified closer to home.

Aaron Goldstein is the deputy of municipal operations at the Cook County public defender’s office.