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Where Is “Home” for Children in State Custody?

Many of us have distinct memories of our own childhood homes. That’s not the case for hundreds of children trapped in Illinois psychiatric hospitals.

Lydia Fu for ProPublica Illinois

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

I remember all sorts of details about the houses where I grew up. I imagine most of us can.

There was the tan ranch where I got my first bee sting. The white brick two-story with light blue shutters that reminded me of the sky on a summer day. And the house with the unfinished basement my friends and I turned into our personal roller rink. I am thankful for the memories and even more grateful for the love and stability that came with them.

I’ve thought often about these memories over the last couple of years, as I’ve interviewed many children in the Illinois child welfare system who long for a place to call home. For them, as for me, it’s a term that more often reflects the emotion than the physical structure.

Gabriel Brasfield has been unnecessarily hospitalized twice since March 2016. He celebrated his 13th birthday at the hospital, where he said the walls were bare and there was little to do. (Courtesy of Lorelei Heric)

This week, I reported on the hundreds of children trapped in psychiatric hospitals for weeks and months at a time after they have been cleared for release because the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services cannot find them homes. I wrote about one boy who had spent so much time confined in a hospital that he forgot what it was like to wear shoes or feel the sun on his face.

Doctors say that, as children wait, their behavior and emotional state can deteriorate. Unnecessary hospitalizations also can delay the healing process because psychiatric hospitals are typically set up to treat an immediate crisis, not the underlying trauma. Between 2015 and 2017, DCFS children collectively spent more than 27,000 days waiting to leave the hospital for their next placement, which would hopefully lead them home one day.

The idea of home, of the familiar love of family, came up in another story I wrote, albeit indirectly. Last fall, I reported on teenagers who had been sent from a state Department of Juvenile Justice correctional facility in a small, southern Illinois town to adult prison. Previously, the incidents that landed them in prison – shoving, punching or spitting at guards – had typically been handled with discipline, such as a loss of privileges or an extension of their juvenile sentences. But after employees sidestepped department protocols to pursue criminal charges on their own, these young men ended up with felony convictions and multiyear prison terms. What’s more, the prosecutions disproportionately affected young black men from Cook County.

Terrence Wardell was 15 when he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital on Chicago’s West Side. He spent seven months there, more than half of which was not medically necessary. He said his time at the hospital was like a prison sentence. (Alyssa Schukar, special to ProPublica Illinois)

In nearly all the cases where the young men were tried as adults, they opted for plea agreements. The public defender told me he suspected some of them pleaded guilty because they thought they’d be sent to an adult prison closer to home. But they may get some additional legal assistance soon. As I reported last month, a nonprofit group out of Evanston is recruiting private attorneys to represent them.

The thread that runs through both stories is how far away home feels for so many children and teens in state systems. One of the child welfare experts I interviewed for this week’s story said my questions got him thinking about how we as a society treat our most vulnerable and what that says about all of us.

That’s something that’s crucial to our mission as investigative reporters. In April, my colleague Jodi S. Cohen wrote about how the University of Illinois at Chicago had to repay the National Institutes of Health $3.1 million because one of its star psychiatrists violated protocols and put children with bipolar disorder at risk. This week, the Chicago Tribune published a devastating investigation revealing how Chicago Public Schools failed to protect students who were raped or sexually abused by trusted adults in their schools. And a joint Better Government Association and WBEZ series uncovered how unsafe elevators and lax oversight at the Chicago Housing Authority — where many residents are elderly and cannot take the stairs — have left tenants in fear.

As I continue to report on issues surrounding children and adults in state custody, I want to hear from you. If you know of cases where they were not protected, email me at [email protected].

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