This story was co-published with the Chicago Sun-Times.
Eight months after its shelters for immigrant children came under public scrutiny over allegations of abuse and lax supervision, Heartland Human Care Services says it will close four shelters in suburban Chicago and add staff, training and other resources at its remaining five facilities.
The decision, announced to employees in a memo Friday, comes as another agency, Maryville Academy, plans to open two additional shelters, including one as early as next month.
Heartland officials told ProPublica Illinois they plan to move children out of its four shelters in Des Plaines between now and the end of May. Altogether, the Des Plaines shelters can house as many as 116 children and teens; the change will cut Heartland’s total capacity under state rules a little more than 20 percent, from 512 to 396.
According to the memo, obtained by ProPublica Illinois, Heartland officials decided to shutter the Des Plaines facilities after an internal review and listening sessions with staff in the chaotic aftermath of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration crackdown. The practice separated more than 2,700 children from parents and sent them to shelters across the U.S., including 99 to Heartland shelters in Illinois.
“We began this process last summer following the challenges we all experienced as we cared for the influx of children who had been severely traumatized by the federal government’s practice of forcibly separating them from their parents at the border,” executive director David Sinski wrote in the memo.
Some of the separated children sent to the Des Plaines shelters said they were mistreated by staff and had witnessed an employee sedate an unruly young boy, allegations first reported last summer by The Washington Post. The allegations, which Heartland has denied, prompted an ongoing federal investigation, outcry from elected officials and regular protests at the shelters and even outside Heartland fundraisers.
In a statement, Heartland officials said the decision to close the Des Plaines shelters and move children to its Chicago facilities was prompted by the organization’s lease in Des Plaines ending and an effort to “align capacity” to the average number of children it has housed in recent years.
While the zero-tolerance crackdown brought new attention to Heartland’s shelter program, the problems the organization now seeks to address predate that policy.
ProPublica Illinois reported extensively on conditions inside Heartland shelters last year and found repeated problems related to lax supervision dating back years. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has found that Heartland failed to provide appropriate supervision in cases involving an employee having an alleged sexual relationship with a detained teen, children having sex in a common room and children running away during a field trip.
More than a dozen children have run away from Heartland facilities in recent years, including three teens who left a North Side shelter together last August.
A DCFS spokesman said the agency has two pending Heartland investigations, both involving Chicago shelters. ProPublica Illinois also has talked to several formerly detained children, in addition to former shelter employees, who said some shelter workers routinely threatened to slow reunification efforts when children refused to take part in daily activities.
Heartland officials have said such threats are not part of its policy.
Heartland Human Care Services, part of a larger nonprofit called Heartland Alliance, has provided shelter services for immigrant children and teens for more than two decades. But it expanded rapidly in recent years, opening the Des Plaines shelters about five years ago. Heartland’s five shelters in Chicago are in the Bronzeville, Rogers Park, Englewood and Beverly neighborhoods.
Nationwide, some 100 shelters house thousands of immigrant children and teens each year.
Heartland has long struggled with employee turnover at its shelters, and it has had particular trouble filling weekend and overnight shifts. The organization occasionally turns to temp agencies to staff its shelters. More than a dozen current and former employees have told ProPublica Illinois they felt overworked in emotionally draining jobs, as they dealt with children and teens who had often endured violence or other trauma in their home countries or on their treks to the U.S.
In the memo to staff, Sinski said closing the Des Plaines shelters would help “streamline our efforts and maximize our efficiency in providing care.” The organization plans to move all its employees from Des Plaines to parallel positions at its Chicago shelters “so we should have plenty of staff for the work we do in Chicago!”
According to the memo, shelter staff told Heartland officials that “our teams on the frontlines” would benefit from increased staffing. In response, Sinski said the organization would add 11 new positions and offer training to better prepare workers to deal with trauma.
Jesse Bless, a Boston-based attorney who has represented more than a half-dozen children in Heartland’s care in their immigration cases, said he was glad Heartland is working to improve its programs. He said the restructuring corroborates “the terrible events of last summer.”
“It is an implicit admission that there were mistakes made and inadequate attention to the care of children,” he said. “They took a look at their procedures and they are saying, ‘We need to do better.’”
As Heartland maps out the closure of some of its shelters, Maryville Academy, a Catholic child welfare agency that operates two shelters for immigrant children in Illinois, plans to expand. Maryville is working to open an all-boys shelter on its existing Des Plaines campus — on the same site where Heartland is shutting down facilities — and hopes to open an all-girls shelter at St. Alphonsus Church in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood this year.
The federal government approached the agency about increasing its capacity and has already approved opening the boys’ shelter, said Sister Catherine Ryan, Maryville’s executive director.
“What we hear from the folks at [the Office of Refugee Resettlement], what we hear from the other agencies, is that the need is so great for these dear children,” she said. “We can’t serve great numbers of them, but we want to serve the children we can.”