Five days before his birthday, an 18-year-old was walking down the street on his way to play basketball.
Around 7 p.m., shots rang out, and he was hit and left there to die. A passerby found him, and he was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead of a gunshot wound to the head.
The 18-year-old, whose name is withheld in an official report, is among 63 gun-related homicide victims whose cases had been investigated by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services for alleged abuse or neglect.
These gun-related homicides accounted for 28 percent of 223 deaths recorded among DCFS-involved children between 2000 and 2011, shows a Chicago Reporter analysis of death reports and investigations by the DCFS Office of the Inspector General.
Of the 63 gun-related victims, more than half—or 35 children—were current or former wards of the state, a figure that some advocates say calls for DCFS to revise the way it places its children into foster care to pay closer attention to their safety.
But such reassessment would conflict with the agency’s long-standing priority in preserving family ties.
Richard Calica, director of DCFS, explained that, when his agency has to remove children from their home, it tries to place them with background-checked relatives who live in the same area, and its focus is on gauging the adequacy of the foster parents, not the safety of the neighborhood. “What I’m considering is, to the extent that’s possible that you’re in your own apartment and no bullets are flying through the window, how capable are you of protecting the child?” he said.
Anita Weinberg, director of the ChildLaw Policy Institute at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Law, concurred. “To say, ‘No, we’ll remove a child from their neighborhood where we think they’ll be safe from abuse or neglect because that neighborhood is dangerous,’ is ignoring how that community is important to them in other ways,” she said.
Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris also said children have a higher rate of success in the foster care system if they’re placed with relatives, and that many relatives live in the same neighborhoods as the original family.
“I think children emotionally fare better, a lot better, with relatives, and if it’s in a bad neighborhood, it’s a bad neighborhood,” Harris said. “There are all kinds of kids who grow up in bad neighborhoods that turn out pretty well.”
But Rick Velasquez, executive director of Youth Outreach Services, said there is a sense of naivety when children are placed solely based on the goal of keeping the family ties.
“In some ways, you want to preserve the child’s connection to the community, but you have to be realistic,” Velasquez said. “If that kid’s life is in jeopardy just by the environment, I think we have the responsibility to take that into consideration.”
But Weinberg and Harris pointed out that, more often than not, foster children end up returning to their original home eventually, either by DCFS design or on their own after they have aged out of the program.
“The truth is, if these kids are going back home again—and that’s usually the goal—they’re going to go back to that neighborhood again,” Weinberg said. “If we’re going to start saying we’re not going to place kids into the violent communities that they came from, then how do we ever return them back there again?”
Velasquez suggested that, in cases in which separating children from their families is not desirable, some supervised activities, whether recreational or through employment, should be offered to keep them off the streets—and safe.
Velasquez recommended job training to older teenagers, who are especially at a high risk for being victims of violence. “They don’t want to sit on the corner waiting to be shot. Ask them, and they’ll say they want a job,” he said. “They have dreams for their lives, so clearly to me [the training is] one of the biggest keys [for] that.”