The headlines sadly are all too familiar. With disturbing frequency, news outlets report about the problems experienced by children under the care of Illinois’ Department of Children and Family Services. Children are left in psychiatric hospitals for long periods of time after they have finished with necessary care. Other children taken into care are forced to sleep in DCFS offices while awaiting placement. And dozens of children died last year after contact with the DCFS system.
As policymakers, we want DCFS to serve each child under its care in a thoughtful and individualized way. And we know that addressing the full panoply of issues confronting the child welfare system in Illinois is the subject of a longtime federal consent decree, a process that will take time and cooperation from experts, the courts and those of us in the legislature. We are committed to working in Springfield to do all we can to identify and address problems.
But there are concrete, basic steps we can take in the interim. One step is to assure that every child in this complex system has their own lawyer, articulating the specific needs and desires of the child in court hearings and other settings.
[ Andrea Lubelfeld: Children who are in juvenile jail because DCFS can’t find them a home are being harmed ]
This idea may seem obvious — after all, we recognize the critical nature of having a lawyer vigorously advocating for someone facing a criminal charge. Given the stakes in juvenile court for young people in DCFS custody — where they will live and whether it will be with the person they love — this can be life-altering. Children’s attorneys are specially trained not just to explain and advise their clients about ongoing proceedings and possible outcomes, but they also can articulate the individual needs and hopes of their clients. In short, they make sure the voice of the child, who is at the center of the proceedings, is heard.
Most people might be surprised to learn that Illinois is just one of seven states that currently don’t guarantee legal counsel for any children in abuse and neglect court proceedings. This is especially disappointing given the fact that at the tail end of the 19th century, Illinois recognized that youths needed to be treated separately in our legal system, creating the very first juvenile court system in the country. While Illinois lags in assuring lawyers in family decisions, every other state has copied the Illinois’ juvenile court, aimed at addressing the unique needs of children.
It is time for Illinois to move forward with this idea already recognized as best practice by experts and legal organizations across the country.
The fact is that getting lawyers for these children actually works. We know children who have their own lawyer experience better results in the system. These are not small improvements; they are meaningful. Children with their own lawyers spend far less time in foster care or group settings. They experience a shorter time to adoption or guardianship and more successful family reunifications — which must always be our first goal.
This not idle speculation. It is fact demonstrable by data — children with legal counsel are 40% more likely to leave the foster care system in the first six months. A full 45% of these children are more likely to be reunited with their biological parents, and because these children experience fewer placements, 65% of such children are not compelled to change schools.
All these measures are significant in the aggregate, but they have a profound, positive impact on an individual child’s life. And we can begin to see these positive outcomes in our state if Illinois adopts a plan to provide legal counsel for children in these proceedings.
[ Editorial: For the sake of Ta’Naja Barnes, Gov. Pritzker must take a hard look at DCFS leadership ]
Last month, the Illinois Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 1478, which would create a right for all children to get access to counsel when they are placed in DCFS custody. These lawyers not only would speak directly for children in these complex settings but also would hold the state agencies accountable and help judges make the best possible decisions with accurate, relevant and complete information.
As the House takes up this measure, some are suggesting that rather than moving forward, we should create a study group to further analyze this idea. But what is there left to study? With groups such as the American Bar Association, the Children’s Defense Fund, the Children’s Advocacy Institute and the National Center for Youth Law all endorsing legal representation for youths in care, the time for study is behind us.
It is time to move forward with steps that will improve DCFS operations for children across Illinois.
State Rep. Lakesia Collins of Chicago represents Illinois’ 9th District, and state Sen. Ann Gillespie of Arlington Heights represents the 27th District.
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April 23, 2023 at 08:41AM