DCFS crowding overburdens children's shelter
Babies, teens housed in same building; long stays are not uncommon
Dana Smith is trying to regain custody of her children; five of the six kids
spent at least eight weeks at Aunt Martha’s. The shelter is intended to be
for brief emergency stays. (Terrence Antonio James, Chicago Tribune)
"She came in and said, 'I need help,'" La Grange police Chief Michael Holub said. "She was very brave."
The sisters were among hundreds of children and teens who have been forced to linger in the shelter — the largest in the state — beyond a 30-day limit set in a federal consent decree, the Tribune has learned. State officials blame the problem on a shortage of foster homes and other options.
Those who stay the longest at the emergency shelter are teens, large sibling groups and children like the La Grange sisters who speak English as a second language and are without other relatives.
Police reports, state data and confidential documents show that the shelter, Aunt Martha's Children's Reception Center, has been plagued by overcrowding and problems with runaways that require hundreds of police visits a year. The newspaper found that a growing number of older teens with criminal histories are put under the same roof as much younger children — including babies.
Some DCFS investigators whose job includes removing children from unsafe homes were critical of the shelter.
"So you have abused kids placed with older kids who are (perpetrators). What kind of madness is that?" said Fred Pennix, an investigator and union leader. "I try to avoid bringing them there, but sometimes you have no choice. I've seen kids wait for weeks for a caseworker to get assigned. Meanwhile, the kid just sits there."
Karen Sneade, one of the nonprofit social service agency's vice presidents, said Aunt Martha's is a safe place with therapeutic programs, providing constant supervision and restricted access that separates children by age group and sex.
"Our goal here is to decrease the trauma they've been through, make sure they're safe and help them make good choices," she said.
Among the newspaper's findings:
•The center, which serves children who range in age from newborn to 21, often exceeded its allowed daily capacity of 50. Two months ago, DCFS agreed to increase it to 60.
On Oct. 8, two 6-year-old boys were moved to another floor reserved for older males because the 16 beds on the floor where they normally stay with infants and toddlers were filled. An email from Aunt Martha's on Oct. 11 said the shelter had 62 children, including 14 babies and toddlers.
•Police were called to the center 2,063 times in three years for complaints about runaways, according to reports. More than 80 fights as well as isolated incidents involving drugs, theft and vandalism were investigated during the same period.
•More than two dozen shelter teens were arrested since 2010 on misdemeanor and felony charges, according to police and court records. That does not include juvenile arrests, which are not public record.
Police used a Taser on a teenage boy Aug. 30 after they said he became violent in the shelter when questioned about a robbery.
The DCFS investigator who handled the La Grange girls' case said long shelter stays are not uncommon.
"I try to avoid that shelter at all cost," Aracely Madrigal said. "I beg my families to find any resource when I take custody because the placement caseworker will leave them at the shelter for months."
The state doesn't have a law regulating the length of shelter stays. But DCFS is required under a 1991 consent decree to keep it under 30 days in most cases. Experts, including DCFS Director Richard Calica, argue even that's too long because it's supposed to be emergency intervention, not placement. Ideally a child would get out of the shelter within 48 hours, he said.