The officials who work most closely with foster children disagree on the accuracy of the data used in this investigation. But none tracks, or can provide, comparable numbers.
Beginning in July, The Chicago Reporter and CATALYST: Voices of Chicago School Reform requested information from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services on how well foster children perform in school and which schools they attend. The requests were repeatedly denied by DCFS officials, who said the information was not available.
The publications then received Chicago Public Schools data from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, a nonprofit based at the University of Chicago that was conducting a study on foster children in the schools. The consortium had obtained school enrollment records that include guardianship information.
The data show the number of children living with non-relatives for each year since 1991. If the person who comes into a school to enroll a child is not the child’s parent, the school asks for legal documentation to show that the person can register the child.
Because DCFS is the official guardian for foster children, their records would indicate that their guardian is “No Relation.”
In early August, the Reporter went back to DCFS and asked how the CPS totals for “No Relation” matched up with the agency’s information on foster children.
DCFS officials didn’t respond until Oct. 11, when Director Jess McDonald; his chief of staff, Martha Allen; and two university researchers called the Reporter. The CPS data, they charged, did not correspond with the agency’s information.
“It is wrong,” Allen said.
But she said the department does not keep historical data on where foster children have attended school. Allen said she could provide a current count of foster children at 32 schools, making it impossible to determine the concentration of foster children in all 600 Chicago public schools.
The school system’s “No Relation” totals show many more children in particular schools than the DCFS information.
For example, CPS data show that Ella Flagg Young Elementary School, at 1434 N. Parkside Ave., had 196 children in non-relative care in fall 2001, while DCFS data indicates that the school had 43 foster children on Oct. 11, 2002.
After the Reporter got the call from DCFS, CPS officials acknowledged their data might have problems.
School and DCFS officials offer several explanations for the data discrepancies.
They say that school records often aren’t updated or kept consistently.
Melissa Roderick, director of strategic planning and development for CPS, said she suspects that the CPS numbers include former foster children who have since been adopted.
Early in the 1990s, fewer than 1,000 children a year were adopted out of the system. But, since 1997, 26,440 in Cook County have been adopted or placed in permanent guardianship. The state continues to give most of these adoptive families subsidies. It also pays for services such as counseling.
However, McDonald said DCFS has no responsibility for children after they are adopted, and they should not be grouped with other foster children.
Overall, the number of children in substitute care in Cook County has dropped to 15,421, and the department estimates that the numbers will fall even more by June.
Mark Courtney, executive director of the Chapin Hall Center for Children, another research organization affiliated with the University of Chicago, said that “many children in Chicago are not foster children, but living with people who are not their relatives.”
He said this is another reason the CPS data are exaggerated, but he couldn’t provide any other numbers.
DCFS and CPS have contracted with Chapin Hall and the consortium to study this issue. Officials said they are not sure when they will generate a report.