Thousands are being deported without a chance to appear before an immigration judge.
More Foster Children Landing in Jail
Lawmakers and advocates say this is worrisome because arrests and detention often put a child on a trajectory to prison as an adult. And this is compounded for foster children, who are often discarded virtually the day they are born, said U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, whose West Side district has the highest concentration of foster children in the city.
"Many of them will end up being in one or another system all of their lives," Davis said.
Little is known about the foster children who, as state officials put it, "experience a placement" in county and state juvenile detention centers or prisons.
About two years ago, the Cook County Dually-Involved DCFS Youth Advisory Board formed to study the issue.
The group, whose members include the top attorney at DCFS and the presiding judges in the Cook County juvenile court, just recently got clearance to match DCFS and juvenile justice records for a research project. Both systems have mandates to keep the identities of involved children confidential.
Other board members, advocates and lawyers say they suspect few are as troubled as Jennifer, a DCFS ward charged with stabbing to death another foster child in March 2002.
They are mostly children who have been deeply hurt and are prone to acting out. They are perhaps more vulnerable to drugs and gangs and getting involved in all the traps that can snare teenagers. And often they are living in places–"residential facilities, group homes or foster homes–"that are ready to call police at the first sign of trouble, according to the lawyers and advocates.
"They are dealing with a big sense of abandonment from natural parents," said Dianne Stone, the psychologist at Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School, located in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. "They are searching for ways to lessen the pain and find a sense of belonging."
Maisha Hamilton-Bennett, executive director of Quality Behavioral Care, a Chicago-based mental health agency, said she worked with one 12-year-old whose foster parents threatened to have him placed in another home whenever he broke rules, even normal things for an adolescent to do, such as staying out late.
"He couldn't relax–"he knew he had to be perfect," she said. "That is too much of a burden to put on a kid."
At the moment DCFS has no protocol that instructs agencies about when to call the police, though department lawyers are working on developing one.
Benjamin Wolf, associate legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, worries that agencies use the juvenile justice system to get rid of difficult cases. He would like the department to track how many times each agency with foster children calls the police, and how many of their wards are arrested. Such information should be used when DCFS draws up contracts, Wolf said. "We have to hold them accountable."
However, 12 percent of the approximately 23,000 children in state custody live in residential facilities or group homes. Many live in foster homes in poor neighborhoods that lack resources.
"Was the environment too overpowering, too overwhelming until it just superseded what the foster parent and DCFS were trying to do?" asked Davis, who in 1996 created a child welfare task force. "Our child welfare system has rules, laws and regulations. But there must be a willingness on our part to provide the resources as well as the structures that can help children who have been scarred so terribly."
Throughout Illinois, there are few community mental health services for teenagers, and the state budget crisis has made the situation worse, said Linda Wolter, senior program director for Metropolitan Family Services, an agency that runs a court-ordered mental health service for juvenile offenders.
In the 1998 fiscal year–"the most recent with available data–"foster children had to wait 260 days, on average, to get mental health services, according to a 2002 report by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
African American kids were almost half as likely to get mental health services as whites. When they did, they had to wait 137 more days on average.
Youth prisons are seeing more young people with mental health problems, said Rodney J. Ahitow, deputy director of the juvenile division for the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Still, Ahitow said, some progress has been made. The Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center now offers mental health care, and a new initiative, funded by the Maryland-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, has diverted youth offenders away from jail to community programs.