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“Do Something, Please,” Doctors Testify at DCFS Hearing

This week, reporter Duaa Eldeib attended a hearing called after our investigation found hundreds of children in state care who were stuck in psychiatric hospitals — sometimes for months. Here’s the dispatch from our newsletter.

This story was first published in ProPublica Illinois’ weekly newsletter. Sign up.

I didn’t expect so many doctors. Usually, when I cover legislative hearings, a steady stream of state officials testify. But this was different because Illinois lawmakers wanted to hear from the doctors who had overseen the treatment of some of the children I’ve been writing about.

Five of those doctors testified on Tuesday from behind the long witness table at the Senate Human Services Committee, and I was struck by a theme that emerged: Children in psychiatric hospitals who watch their discharge dates come and go suffer deeply as they wait to be released.

State sen. Julie Morrison, a Democrat from north suburban Deerfield, called the hearing in response to a ProPublica Illinois investigation in June that found that hundreds of children in the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services had spent weeks or even months at a time locked in psychiatric hospitals.

Doctors — some of the very ones who testified Tuesday — had cleared the children for discharge, but DCFS had failed to find them appropriate homes.

I walked over to the Michael A. Bilandic Building in the Loop on Tuesday afternoon knowing how critical it is for reporters to write about what happens after an investigation is published. We need to continue reporting as long as it takes to be sure our stories are not just words on a computer screen.

One by one, the doctors recounted the damage that protracted hospitalizations inflict on these children. They became angry and isolated. They felt abandoned. They fell far behind in their education, sometimes going months with just 45 minutes a day of schoolwork. Some children even picked fights in hopes of being sent to jail because it seemed better than one more day trapped in a hospital.

“They become suicidal, aggressive and self-harmful,” said Dr. Michael Naylor, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago and medical director of UIC’s Comprehensive Assessment and Treatment Unit, which treats children in DCFS care.

Dr. Peter Nierman, medical director at Chicago Lakeshore Hospital and a University of Chicago psychiatry professor, made an impassioned plea to lawmakers.

“If I’m one of those kids today, I’m asking you guys to do something, please,” he said.

He continued.

“I’ve had them beg me to take them home with me.”

Then he paused.

“We do owe them more. We’re smart enough. We’re wealthy enough. It is unconscionable.”

Like most complex problems, there is no quick fix. DCFS has pledged to do better, and officials said they’re seeking assistance from other state agencies and groups in search of a comprehensive solution.

On our end, we’ll keep following the story and holding officials to their promises.

Here are some other stories we continue to pursue:

Since voters ousted Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios from office following the joint ProPublica Illinois–Chicago Tribune series “The Tax Divide,” ripples have been felt across the county. Berrios lost his chairmanship of the Cook County Democratic Party in April. In a unanimous decision, an Illinois appeals court ordered Berrios to release documents sought in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Tribune. The records are supposed to be released in early September and could provide more details of how the office values residential and commercial property. Depositions unsealed in that case show the office changed tens of thousands of values by hand — something Berrios had denied for months — and sometimes relied on Zillow or Trulia to evaluate homes. The assessor’s private contractor has developed a new residential assessment model that appears to be a major improvement, even if it has rattled some wealthier homeowners with higher values. Until the entire county is valued, however, it’s too early to tell if the system is on the path to improvement. And, until the county deals with deep flaws in commercial and industrial assessments, the system will never be fair.

—Jason Grotto

Lawyers have started ordering court transcripts for several young men who are serving adult prison sentences after being convicted of assaulting staff at the Illinois Youth Center at Harrisburg. A ProPublica Illinois investigation in October revealed some youths in Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice facilities received lengthy adult prison sentences for what were sometimes minor offenses, including shoving or spitting at guards.

Following the story, the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, an Evanston-based nonprofit, received a grant from the Illinois Bar Foundation to recruit lawyers to represent young men from the youth facility after concerns grew over whether they had received adequate legal representation.

Attorneys from the law firm Kirkland & Ellis volunteered to order court transcripts and review the cases, said Patrick Keenan-Devlin, the Moran Center’s executive director. The group sent letters to nearly a dozen of the young men and has heard back from eight so far.

“These kids,” Keenan-Devlin said, “wrote us letters saying: ‘Yes, I want representation. Yes, this did feel like a shoddy process.’”

—Duaa Eldeib

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