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Kids Left Behind Bars


There’s a kid locked up in the Cook County juvenile jail right now who isn’t supposed to be there.

It happens all the time.  Even after a judge has ordered their release…lots of kids wait weeks, even months to be picked up.   Before you get angry about deadbeat parents out there ….

The kids we’re talking about here are wards of the state of Illinois…and their guardian…the one leaving them in jail…is the Department of Children and Family Services or DCFS.

In just the past few years this has happened to hundreds of kids:

A judge said they were free to go, but they stayed locked up in Cook County’s juvenile jail because DCFS could not find them a place to live.

BOYER:  I think it sends a very disturbing message to a child to say there’s no reason for you to be held in detention, but we’re not working hard enough to find a place for you to go.

Bruce Boyer runs Loyola’s ChildLaw Clinic.

BOYER:We’re talking about children a judge has said: Theres no risk here! This child should be at home or in a community based setting. So, that’s incredibly disruptive to a child.

Antoine Brown remembers that disruption.

Brown is 25 now and he lives in Marion in Southern Illinois.

But when he was 14 years old, Brown spent about six months in Cook County’s juvenile jail waiting for DCFS to find him a bed.

BROWN: It kinda like crushes your spirit so you’ll be like, I don’t care anymore I’m just gonna do what I want to do.

A WBEZ analysis of data from Cook County found that in the three years between October of 2011 and October of 2014, there were 344 times when kids waited a week or more in the jail for DCFS to pick them up.

More than a thousand times kids stayed in jail at least two extra days.  Last year the longest wait was 190 days - more than half the year.

The data we have doesn’t account for how many of those 344 times involve the same kid being held...but to check on daily counts….we asked jail staff to give us a snapshot of every kid who was waiting to be picked up on one day in October of 2014. We found more than two-thirds of the 19 kids waiting were with DCFS.

Boyer says many of the young people forced to wait have been in the child care system for most of their lives. Often they’ve been abused or neglected, passed from foster home to foster home.

That means most of these young men and women truly have special needs.

BOYER: These are the needs that really require treatment, whether it’s counseling or other kinds of treatment, and these are the kinds of things that are just not available in the detention center.

And Jennifer Vollen Katz  witht the prison watchdog John Howard Association says this is a population at a crucial point. The choices they - and their caregivers - make can determine  if these kids move on from a troubled childhood to become successful adults, or get stuck in that prison pipeline you hear about.

JVK: The system has failed them time and again, so for the system to tell them, do this and you’ll get to go I think is just another indicator that trusting authority is probably not a safe bet for these kids, and that’s not a message we want to be giving them.


Beneath the juvenile detention center - on the building’s main floor - are the county’s juvenile courtrooms.

Every week juvenile court judges do check-ins in court on each DCFS ward who’s waiting to get out of the detention center.

I watched  one of those check ins for a young man who’d been waiting for a week. (By the way...two weeks later, he’s still there.)

At the check-in, the attorney for DCFS - Peter Ryan - told the judge they had identified a residential treatment center and were just waiting for a bed to open up. The judge asked the other attorneys if they had anything to add. They did not.

The whole thing took less than five minutes.

The kid didn’t even come down for the hearing. There wouldn’t have been any point. Nick Youngblood is an attorney in the Cook County Public Guardian’s office.

He says judges should be holding DCFS in contempt of court or handing down fines if they leave a kid behind bars.

YOUNGBLOOD: It’s never gonna come to the attention of people who can make the bigger changes until something like that would happen.

The judge on the case, Terrence Sharkey, didn’t want to be interviewed on tape - he says he doesn’t like his own voice - but he is well aware of DCFS kids waiting in the juvenile jail.

Judge Sharkey says he does his best to keep pressure on the department, but he’s not going to issue an order DCFS can’t comply with. He believes DCFS is doing the best it can.

Nick Youngblood says he’s heard from judges who worry that if they order the department to place one kid, all that will mean is someone else waits longer.

YOUNGBLOOD: That’s outrageous in my opinion.The real discussion should be how we’re hurting all of these children who are waiting for residential treatment and not getting residential treatment. And that there’s a bigger structural problem that needs to be addressed and maybe a resource problem that needs to be addressed.


Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner gives his budget address later today (WEDS).

Lots of people are bracing for big spending cuts.

DCFS spokesman Andrew Flach told me he doesn’t know what’s in store for his department. But he says the governor has assured them they will have all the resources they need.

Flach says  leadership from new Director George Sheldon will eventually fix problems like kids languishing in jail.

For his part, Loyola’s Bruce Boyer says the important thing isn’t how much money DCFS has, but the way it’s spent.

BOYER: If we had resources for dealing with kids in the community that would be a lot less expensive than detaining kids in the expensive detention facility. And I don’t know how we break out of this cycle, but we have to find a way to be more far-sighted.

Cook County estimates that it costs more than 500 dollars a day to house one person in the juvenile temporary detention center.

And all those times kids waited a week or more, they add up to 73 hundred days in Cook County juvenile jail … waiting on DCFS.

That’s almost 4 million dollars we spent on extra jail time over three years.

And for all that money, the kids didn’t get special counseling or intensive therapy.

Instead, they got all the wrong lessons about the justice system, and a pretty direct message that they don’t matter. At least not enough.

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