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Rauner faces pressure to overhaul child services

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner speaks at the DuPage Water Commission in Elmhurst Friday Feb. 13.
Mark Busch -
Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner speaks at the DuPage Water Commission in Elmhurst Friday Feb. 13. Mark Busch -

CHICAGO – First-term Gov. Bruce Rauner has come under increasing pressure to overhaul Illinois’ troubled child welfare system after a leading civil rights group asked for quick federal court action over “dangerously inadequate” care and services.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed a complaint against the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services late Friday, the latest turn in a decades-old consent decree aimed at keeping adequate foster care and child protective services in place. Rauner’s administration responded Monday by touting a new director and efforts to help foster care children. But days ahead of his first budget address, questions lingered over how the Republican will make and fund any major changes.

The ACLU, which argues state wards have a constitutional right to adequate state services, said serious problems have been triggered in years past by deep budget cuts and exacerbated by having roughly half a dozen directors in less than two years. The group wants a response soon on alleged violations of the decree, particularly regarding children with mental health issues, and expects a hearing before a federal judge.

“We’re not going through another revolving door of directors while we wait and our children suffer,” ACLU attorney Benjamin Wolf said.

He said Rauner’s administration inherited issues but that recent talks over problems raised by newspaper stories and lawmakers’ hearings weren’t productive. He said agency officials wouldn’t agree to immediate overhauls, which triggered the lawsuit. In previous years, DCFS has agreed to comply on issues such as reducing worker caseloads.

The complaint said the care of juveniles with mental health needs is “dangerously inadequate,” with long waiting lists for children who need specialized placements and lengthy stays in temporary shelters. The complaint cited reports from experts, providers, clients and caregivers.

DCFS spokesman Andrew Flach said in a statement that Rauner initiated changes just weeks after taking office.

Last week, he named George Sheldon, the former director of Florida’s Department of Children and Families, as a new director. Earlier in the month he announced an expansion of a partnership with Casey Family Programs, a foundation that works on reducing the need for foster care.

“DCFS has already started and is committed to continuing to make the reforms necessary to ensure that the most vulnerable children of Illinois are cared for and receive the help that they need,” Flach said.

What remains unclear is how Rauner will allocate money for the department.

Few details have been released about what Rauner intends to do in addressing Illinois’ enormous financial problems. He presents his budget to lawmakers on Wednesday.

The consent decree followed a 1988 class-action lawsuit claiming DCFS was so poorly managed that it hurt children instead of assisting them. More recently, the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ have investigated child-abuse and neglect deaths.

The Chicago Tribune has published stories detailing reported claims of abuse, violence and prostitution at residential treatment centers where some wards of the state are housed. Lawmakers have called for changes in the wake of the stories.

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