A last resort procedure available to child welfare officials is sending foster children to out-of-state mental health institutions. Usually, these fragile children suffer from severe medical and psychiatric disorders that require specialized care. However, officials have been abusing this option, especially in Illinois, by using it far too often and then ignoring these children when they suffer physical and sexual abuse by other residents or facility employees. Although police and facility employees have documented instances of harm, far too often state officials fail to intervene and help these vulnerable youth.
According to the most recent statistics from the National Data Archive on Child Abuse & Neglect (AFCARS), in 2016, 2,000 children in the U.S. were sent to out-of-state facilities. In 2018, the number dropped to 1,716. While the number of children subjected to this practice has dropped in most states, Illinois has increased the practice and sent children to over a dozen different states. Some children are as young as 7-years-old. Marc Smith, Director of the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services, promised to bring foster children back to Illinois, improve monitoring procedures, and increase the number of residential beds and therapeutic foster homes.
Why is this a problem? In addition to children enduring abuse and neglect, these vulnerable youth are removed from their communities and their families. Once out-of-state, they can no longer have visits from their support networks. One girl from Chicago, now 17-years-old, had been sent to facilities in Arkansas, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee, where she endured sedation, bruising restraints, and sexual assault by a facility employee. Describing her experience, she revealed “I basically felt like I was abandoned, like nobody wants to deal with me.” Another girl described her experience as “I felt like I was never going to make it out. I thought I would never get to freedom, that I would be locked up forever like an animal.”
At least seven children from Illinois were sent to a facility in Michigan, Detroit Capstone, where facility employees encouraged the children to attack other children who misbehaved. The employees would then reward the children with snacks, like snickers bars. Another facility in Arkansas, Millcreek Behavioral Health, operated by Arcadia Healthcare, failed to respond to a child’s illness and swollen gums. The girl, who suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, did not get her basic needs met, such as seeing an eye doctor, a dentist, and even getting a haircut, until her parents flew into the state. The girl, once a violin player, no longer knew her parents’ names after spending time at Millcreek. In yet another facility in Schererville, Illinois, Campagna, that serves nearly 300 children a year, required over 30 police interventions for reports of battery between 2016 and 2018. Moreover, police investigated six reports of sexual assault at Campagna during those years.
Currently, Illinois is testing a new program for children with specialized medical and psychiatric needs called “therapeutic foster homes.” Lutheran Social Services of Illinois is one of the agencies contracted to run the program. The foster families that participate in this program are to receive extra training. Lutheran recently determined that for 35 out of the 43 children discharged from therapeutic foster homes, the treatment was successful. However, much remains unclear about this new model.
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