Doing it for the Kids: The Children’s Initiative Speaks Up

children_playingKids who find themselves in the custody of the government aren’t able to speak up for increased safety, better trained staff, or a reorganization of the system. That helps explain why, for many years, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services was considered one of the worst child welfare programs in the nation. Its residential facilities were grossly inadequate with children often subjected to physical or sexual violence. That is, until the Children’s Initiative stepped in and filed a class action that ultimately forced extraordinary reforms on a broken system.

The Children’s Initiative is a special project of the Roger Baldwin Foundation of the ACLU of Illinois and one of the many impactful projects you are supporting through the Investing in Justice Campaign. It serves as a voice and watchdog for kids in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. Through three ongoing federal class actions, the Children’s Initiative keeps these systems in check while continuously improving them. It has also blocked debilitating funding cuts to key programs over the years, and recently successfully fought to require the state to continue funding critical services during the current budget impasse.

People who are politically powerless, like kids, are left behind, and systems can deteriorate very quickly, said Associate Legal Director Ben Wolf. Fortunately, we have the ability to remedy them over time.

The cases they tackle do not start and end within a few months; it can sometimes take decades to address and remedy such large systemic issues. In the case B.H. v. Sheldon, the Children’s Initiative has fought for DCFS improvements for almost 30 years. In 1995, the welfare system was bursting with 50,000 kids in its care without any effective efforts to transition them to families or permanent homes. Since the early 2000s, the Children’s Initiative’s advocacy led to more than 40,000 kids being adopted, shifting the balance from long-term foster care to family permanence. Its reforms also reduced caseloads, increased children’s safety, and improved the quality of the staff.

nice-sweet-children-playing-in-sandIn recent years, however, a high turnover in DCFS leadership has aggravated the agency’s performance. There currently are severe shortages in mental health services, and the agency struggles to efficiently transition kids with mental health and behavioral issues out of shelters, correctional facilities, and psychiatric hospitals. In March 2015, the Children’s Initiative fought to have a panel of experts appointed to evaluate DCFS services and recommend implementable solutions; the agency’s compliance will likely be overseen by the Children’s Initiative.

The Children’s Initiative also works to reform the juvenile justice system so that its facilities and policies can effect restorative, rather than harmful, results in approximately 750 young people. In R.J. v. Jones, Children’s Initiative attorneys argued that kids in juvenile prisons had insufficient education and mental health services no teacher for much of the day and no board-certified psychiatrist offering access to therapy and medications. The state agreed to bring in more professionals and change some of the practices, including a full day of school. Attorneys have also worked on reforming policies in discipline, such as lengthy disciplinary segregation that is known to be cruel and counterproductive. A major win came in May 2015 when the court ruled to essentially ban solitary confinement of juveniles.

Ben notes that one of the highlights of his career is his work in transforming the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, which is one of the largest in the country. Jimmy Doe v. Cook County, which is nearing its end, challenged the County on the Center’s conditions, found to be unsafe, unsanitary, overcrowded and understaffed. After years of resistance, Ben and his team were able to get a court-appointed expert, Earl Dunlap, to run the Center as Transitional Administrator and see through its reform process. He screened and trained the staff, substantially increased cleanliness, and expedited procedures to reduce the number of children in custody. With the Center’s main problems addressed and the Circuit Court of Cook County now charged with overseeing the Center, Chief Judge Timothy Evans selected Leonard Dixon to serve as the new Superintendent in May. We are proud that what had been one of the worst scandals of this community is now pointed to as a model on how to run a facility, Ben added.