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Illinois Lawmakers Demand Child Welfare Officials Better Serve Spanish-Speaking Families

State officials now say they want to increase bilingual hiring and the recruitment of Spanish-speaking foster families.

Lydia Fu for ProPublica Illinois

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Illinois lawmakers and advocates are calling on state child welfare officials to better comply with a federal court order to serve Spanish-speaking families, an issue they say has become more critical amid heightened fear among immigrants of interacting with government agencies.

The calls come in response to a ProPublica Illinois investigation last month that found that the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has, for decades, repeatedly violated a 1977 federal court order that mandates the agency provide services to Latino families in their primary language.

“The details uncovered by these reports are heartbreaking, plain and simple,” U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, said in a statement. “No child should ever be deprived of the opportunity to communicate with their parents as a result of actions by a government agency that claims to be their advocate, and it’s clear that DCFS must do better before even more children who’ve done nothing wrong are harmed.”

DCFS acting Director Marc Smith, who was appointed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in April, said the administration has outlined reforms, including hiring more bilingual workers, recruiting additional Spanish-speaking foster families and upgrading technology to better track whether children of Spanish-speaking parents are placed in foster homes where that language is spoken.

State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat, cited the ProPublica Illinois story in a letter to Smith this week asking for a clearer picture of the steps the agency is taking to address shortfalls in meeting the consent decree. She said she’s heard from child welfare advocates and others describing how parents are being pressured to waive their rights to have their children placed in Spanish-speaking foster homes and are being told that requesting a Spanish-speaking caseworker could delay reunification with their children.

“These are our children,” Feigenholtz said in an interview. “They are not throwaway children.”

Feigenholtz highlighted the plight of undocumented families. She wrote in her July 15 letter that many are “fearful and reluctant to interact with DCFS as they worry about the possibility of having their citizenship status recognized and flagged for deportation.”

The ProPublica Illinois investigation featured the story of Jorge Matias, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant father whose primary language is Spanish. DCFS placed his children in a foster home where only Slovak was spoken. The children, whose mother struggles with a heroin addiction, were taken into custody after they were born with drugs in their system.

For years, the brother and sister grew up speaking Slovak and were unable to communicate with their father, who was deported last fall but is fighting for custody.

The DCFS inspector general later found a pattern of discrimination against Matias, saying he was effectively coerced into waiving his rights. The federal consent decree, called Burgos for the family involved in the original lawsuit, requires the state to place children of Spanish-speaking families in foster homes where that language is spoken and to provide caseworkers and other services in Spanish to those families.

ProPublica Illinois found that there have been some 300 possible Burgos violations since 2005, though that number is almost certainly an undercount given DCFS’ repeated failures over four decades to properly document families’ race, ethnicity and language preference. Matias’ 5-year-old son, for example, is labeled in the DCFS case file as white, non-Hispanic and English speaking. The agency’s records on whether caseworkers speak Spanish also are flawed.

The misclassification of families and caseworkers makes it nearly impossible for DCFS to systematically determine compliance with the consent decree, ProPublica Illinois’ reporting showed.

DCFS stopped using waivers that allowed parents to sign away their Burgos rights following federal court action in the early 1990s. But ProPublica Illinois found that the agency’s language determination forms remain problematic. Today, some parents whose primary language is Spanish effectively waive their rights through the form, as did Matias. Smith said he is working to make sure that caseworkers are properly trained on the purpose of the form, but he would not say if the agency is planning to do away with it or implement additional protocols to prevent misuse.

Charles Golbert, Cook County public guardian, said DCFS too often treats Burgos like a checklist without embracing the spirit of the consent decree. The problems, he said, appear to be worse in the suburbs and areas where there are fewer Spanish-speaking foster homes, service providers and caseworkers. The proposed reforms, he said, “are all prerequisites but they’re not enough.”

Tanya Gassenheimer, an attorney with the nonprofit Shriver Center on Poverty Law, which recently began dealing with child welfare issues, said she plans to work with parents and other organizations to address the issues raised by ProPublica Illinois’ reporting.

When language barriers get in the way of parents’ ability to communicate with their children, reuniting them is difficult “for a reason completely unrelated to a parents’ ability to care for their children,” she said.

State Rep. Delia Ramirez, a Chicago Democrat, said she plans to prioritize the Burgos consent decree during upcoming meetings for a working group of about a dozen state lawmakers who are looking into ways to bring a number of reforms to DCFS.

“It’s not just one story or two stories,” she said. “This is happening too often across the state.”

The legislative working group sprang from the Adoption and Child Welfare Committee, which is chaired by Feigenholtz and was established this year to bring attention and resources to the beleaguered agency. Smith is the 13th DCFS leader in 10 years. After years of funding cuts, the agency received an $80 million increase in its budget this year.

Smith said the agency plans additional improvements, including enhanced training for staff and increased support to the DCFS Burgos coordinator.

“We’re making sure all of our practices put us in line with not only the Burgos consent decree but with what we think are best practices in dealing with Spanish-speaking families,” he said.

Officials from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a national civil rights group that represents families in the Burgos litigation, said they hope to work with DCFS’ new leadership to ensure the agency complies with the consent decree.

Bilingual hiring has long been a problem at DCFS, leading to failures in communicating with families and jeopardizing investigations into allegations of abuse and neglect. Records also show the agency last year only reported 156 bilingual frontline workers, though state law requires 194.

State Sen. Julie Morrison, a Democrat from Deerfield, said she was appalled to learn that some caseworkers didn’t speak the language of the families they serve.

“How in 2019 do we not have enough Spanish-speaking caseworkers?” she asked. “If it was Mandarin, I’d say that is tough. But there is no excuse for this.”

In a recent interview, Illinois Deputy Gov. Sol Flores called the misclassification of Matias’ family “unacceptable” and said his children should not have been placed in a foster home where Spanish was not spoken. Flores, whose Puerto Rican grandparents were bilingual foster parents in Chicago, said that is not how the administration intends to lead moving forward.

She said the agency plans to use part of its increased budget to hire 300 additional caseworkers and investigators. DCFS officials said they would like 100 of those positions filled by bilingual workers.

Although both Smith and Flores acknowledged the agency’s shortcomings in data collection and tracking, they defended DCFS’ compliance with Burgos, saying the majority of Spanish-speaking families were served in accordance with the court order.

In cases where that didn’t happen, they said, the child’s mental or physical health often took priority. They agreed the agency needed to add Spanish-speaking foster homes that are equipped to meet those special needs.

“We just don’t want to be in the situation where we have to choose between language and the most appropriate level of mental health and medical care,” Smith said.

Ramirez, the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants, said the need to improve how DCFS serves Spanish-speaking families is more important now than ever before, given the Trump administration’s immigration policies that have led to separations of families at the border, in addition to his ongoing threats to deport undocumented immigrants.

“As Trump continues to threaten, deport and detain thousands of people across the country, we know we’ll see some impact in the state of Illinois,” she said. “I want to make sure the agency is prepared to provide support to the children whose parents get detained or whose parents for one reason or another are not available.”

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