State lawmakers Thursday called for an independent investigation of a Chicago psychiatric hospital, citing a ProPublica Illinois report that found allegations of sexual assault and abuse of children, as well as safety violations related to suicidal patients.

In a letter to the head of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, three state lawmakers said they support the recommendation of DCFS’ acting inspector general, Meryl Paniak, to appoint an independent reviewer to go into Aurora Chicago Lakeshore Hospital and examine the agency’s response to incidents there.

Separately, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois gave DCFS until the end of the day on Friday to respond to a list of demands that included an independent assessment of the hospital. The ACLU, which monitors DCFS as part of a federal court consent decree, said it would return to court next week if the agency doesn’t respond satisfactorily.

The state’s child welfare agency has investigated 16 allegations of abuse or neglect at the hospital, on Chicago’s North Side, since January. Some of the reports involved children who had already been cleared to be released from the hospital but languished there because DCFS could not find them a more appropriate place to go.

Federal regulators also are investigating safety and patient concerns at the hospital.

State Reps. Sara Feigenholtz and Greg Harris and state Sen. Heather Steans, all Chicago Democrats, expressed in the letter their “serious concern” about reported incidents involving “harm to youth” at the hospital. They urged Beverly “B.J.” Walker, DCFS’ acting director, to “move swiftly” in naming an independent reviewer.

That person, they wrote, should be appointed to “evaluate not only the cases at Chicago Lakeshore and the response by DCFS, but also to conduct a thorough review of quality of care and adherence to all relevant laws, policies, and procedures.” In addition, the review should include recommendations on how to “guarantee the safety and best possible outcomes” for children at the hospital now or in the future.

State Sen. Julie Morrison, a Democrat from Deerfield, said separately on Thursday that she is drafting a second letter to DCFS reiterating the need for an independent investigation and asking DCFS to ensure the process takes no longer than 60 days.

“I’m disgusted,” Morrison said. “I understand this is a very difficult population, but they deserve to be safe.”

The lawmakers agreed the concerns at Lakeshore highlight a broader problem: children who remain in psychiatric hospitals after they are cleared for discharge.

“It’s unconscionable,” Steans said. “It goes beyond what the psychiatric hospitals can control. It goes to DCFS not doing its job and not getting placements for those kids.”

David Fletcher-Janzen, the hospital’s CEO, said that funding for mental health services in Illinois had been cut dramatically and that many of the issues Lakeshore is grappling with are a byproduct of a “systemic problem of disinvestment in mental health, neonatal, and other social services in Illinois that have resulted in one of the weakest social safety nets in the country.”

Hospital officials declined to comment on individual cases.

“If the General Assembly decides to move forward with an independent review of Chicago Lakeshore Hospital, we are confident that they will see that we operate at the highest standards,” Fletcher-Janzen added. “It is imperative, however, that any review be conducted by a group that is familiar with the unique situation in which Chicago Lakeshore Hospital operates including an intimate understanding of trauma, DCFS, and acute care operational issues.”

Paniak said that she didn’t think DCFS was acting with enough urgency, and that it needed to do better.

“We all recognize that we need a deeper, more thorough, more objective look at what’s going on there,” Paniak said. “It’s the totality of circumstances that raise concerns.”

Neil Skene, special assistant to Walker, said he has not had time to review the legislators’ letter but the department has no plans to appoint an independent reviewer.

“We will look at the letters from the legislators and we will evaluate the situation in light of the concerns they express and see if there’s a reason to re-evaluate our position,” he said.

But at this time, he said, “we haven’t seen a reason to step in yet while the other investigations are still going on. We’d like to see what the outcome is of that before we step in.”

He said DCFS has complied with many of Paniak’s recommendations and sends an employee to the hospital every other day to ensure the safety of children there. All allegations have been investigated, he said, and no new allegations have emerged since the DCFS employee has been at the hospital.

The Illinois Department of Public Health in recent months conducted a series of inspections at the hospital on behalf of federal regulators. The agency faulted the hospital for having doors and phone cords that posed suicide risks, as well as other violations. Federal officials threatened to cut off funding if the hospital did not correct the deficiencies.

Hospital officials went to court in late September to stop the move, saying they would be forced to close the facility if they lost funding. Federal officials granted the hospital two extensions and said Lakeshore has until the end of November to fix the violations.

Harris said he was “shocked” at the extent of the allegations after reading the ProPublica Illinois story. He had supported the hospital when it went to court in September but said at that time he was only aware of the suicide risk violations.

“The bottom line now is I want to know what DCFS is doing to protect these kids and oversee what’s going on at the hospital,” Harris said.

An independent review, he said, would allow for “the most unbiased” assessment.

The ACLU attorneys said they were “outraged” after reading about the reports of sexual assault, abuse and physical attacks. The group had reached out to DCFS last month to inquire about the investigation by federal regulators but were told that “it was all about telephone cords and it was being addressed,” said general counsel Heidi Dalenberg.

“When we ask a question about safety at a facility, we expect to receive an honest and fulsome response, and that’s not what we got,” Dalenburg said in an interview. “Their response was disingenuous at best.”

The ACLU sent DCFS a list of seven steps they demanded the agency take, starting with placing a hold on further admissions of DCFS children to the hospital. The children who are there beyond their release date “must receive top priority,” they wrote, with a goal of moving them out of the hospital within two weeks.

The organization also called for daily unannounced visits, planning so no child remains at the hospital after they have been cleared for discharge and frequent reporting to a court-appointed expert. Any child in DCFS care who can be transferred from the hospital should be, ACLU lawyers wrote.

This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. CT.

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