Andrea Lubelfeld: Children who are in juvenile jail because DCFS can’t find them a home are being harmed

The Chicago Tribune published this commentary on Feb. 8, 2023.

Children who are in juvenile jail because DCFS can’t find them a home are being harmed

By Andrea Lubelfeld

Every day, attorneys from the Cook County public defender’s office represent children who are ordered released from the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center but are stuck there because the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has failed to find them a home.

We in the Juvenile Justice Division of the Cook County public defender’s office share in the outrage that led to the Cook County public guardian suing DCFS for allegedly failing to find appropriate placement for these children. In any given month, there are children in detention who have been ordered released — children who are among the most vulnerable members of our society.

They don’t deserve to call juvenile jail home, especially when a judge orders them to be freed. But despite decades of advocacy, court orders, a consent decree and media coverage, this deplorable situation persists. It is far past time to do something, and it is our hope that the lawsuit will reverse the horrible practice of using the jail as a de facto placement for these wards of the state.

Cook County public defenders represent children like the plaintiffs in this lawsuit, as well as their parents. We are constantly in the position of challenging the status quo and enforcing the law, which provides that if there is no appropriate placement available for the child, DCFS shall create an appropriate individualized plan.

No one believes the juvenile jail is an appropriate plan. The children are treated like prisoners, some for months. They have been removed from their parents’ home, often because of abuse or neglect. In such a facility, they have no meaningful opportunity to receive treatment to counteract those negative feelings of self-worth.

These children will eventually be released into the community without positive nurturance and resources, creating scenarios for a less safe public.

The children in this situation have suffered injury in their young lives, not of their making. Remaining in jail prolongs this anguish and prevents them from getting the educational and therapeutic services deemed necessary by DCFS’ own assessments.

Imagine being a child and hearing that you should be released, but you remain in jail because no one picks you up. They are receiving a loud and clear message that they are unwanted. This cycle of trauma that began with them being removed from their parents’ custody continues with their entry into juvenile jail and results in them being left behind bars by their guardian.

The children we represent in this terrible predicament report feelings of loneliness, sadness and hopelessness.

This is not a new situation. DCFS has been under a federal court consent decree for more than 30 years. Over that time, they have consistently failed to provide the placements for these vulnerable, marginalized youths, despite the clear research that community-based placements with supportive wraparound services are the best approach to serve these children and keep them out of the juvenile and adult criminal legal system.

This failure continues despite the millions of dollars we spend year after year on everything else, including jailing children.

At some point we must get serious about treating these children right. The alternative is the vicious cycle that we see on the news every day, which creates more harm for everyone, including the child, their families and our communities.

We must do better.

Andrea Lubelfeld is chief of the Juvenile Justice Division of the Cook County public defender’s office.