Late last year, when the federal government released its annual count of kids entering and leaving foster care across the country, one strong theme emerged from a pandemic year like no other: the number of children in government custody dropped in 2020 by almost 20,000. That’s likely because schools and workplaces were shuttered and millions of families hunkered down at home, far from mandated reporters of child maltreatment in classrooms and day care centers.
On the other end of the child welfare spectrum, after remaining constant for several years, the number of children leaving foster care for family reunifications and adoption also dropped. That trend followed the shuttering of courtrooms, causing backlogged cases, with parents prohibited from performing court-ordered duties necessary to reunite with their children.
Fewer entries and fewer exits from foster care were near-universal among states nationwide, according to data released in November by the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, with just a handful of states revealing a different pattern.
But on both fronts, Illinois stood apart. In that state, 1,128 more children entered foster care from September 2019 to September 2020, compared to the previous year, totaling 7,837 entries. That 17% increase represents the only meaningful increase in foster care cases of any state in the country during the pandemic.
A spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) contacted for this article said his agency “continues to examine this data to identify the causes for these increases, but it would be inappropriate to comment as it would only be speculation at this point.” DCFS Director of Communications Bill McCaffrey declined to comment further or respond to a list of findings.
But the numbers trouble advocates for struggling families.
“In times of crisis, that’s when it’s even more important for families to be together,” said Tanya Gassenheimer, staff attorney for community justice at the Chicago-based Shriver Center on Poverty Law. “When there’s so much isolation, fear about health and wellness, that’s as important a time as any to err on the side of families being together and having access to each other. The reaction the opposite way is really upsetting.”
High-profile child abuse deaths boost child welfare investigations
The foster care population overseen by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services had been increasing well before the coronavirus began its years-long spread in the United States. But that trend continuing during the pandemic revealed a different driver of foster care placements here, numerous child welfare professionals told The Imprint: heightened attention to the widely publicized death of a child whose home had long been under scrutiny by social workers.
In April 2019, news spread that 5-year-old AJ Freund of northern Illinois had been discovered dead from a fatal beating. His mother and father pleaded guilty to felony charges and were sentenced following his death to 35 and 30 years in prison, respectively. In addition, two McHenry County child welfare officials are now facing felony child endangerment charges for failing to protect the boy, following years of troubling reports to police and the child maltreatment hotline.
AJ’s death generated extensive media coverage and public outrage, as did several other similar crimes against Illinois children that made headlines and resulted in criminal prosecutions — a legal course that is rare among cases handled by the foster care courts. In February 2019 in central Illinois, 2-year-old Ta’Naja Barnes died after being returned from foster care; her mother and her mother’s boyfriend are now serving 20 and 30 years in prison, respectively, on murder charges.
Also that year, 8-year-old Rica Rountree was beaten to death by her father’s girlfriend, resulting in a life sentence for murder; and a federal lawsuit was filed against six social workers who handled the case. Then, in July 2020, 6-year-old Kerrigan Rutherford died in central Illinois and her parents were charged with involuntary manslaughter for giving her prescription psychoactive medication. The Chicago Tribune editorial on the case led with the headline: “Could DCFS have saved her?”
The number of child maltreatment investigations in Illinois spiked over this period, rising from 75,030 in 2017 to 86,738 last year.
Lawyers, advocates and foster care service providers said in interviews that they attribute the increase in subsequent removals to the media and political firestorm, which resulted in the child welfare agency casting too wide a net and roping in far more children than just those in the most extreme abuse cases.
The critique helps explain why Illinois differed so greatly from other states in the most recent federal statistics, when almost every other U.S. state outside of Illinois saw entries to foster care decrease dramatically in 2020 — some falling by 25% or more.
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Patrick Murphy, the county’s longtime former public guardian, said more than 95% of child welfare cases “have to do with very poor people from the inner-city who are under enormous stress.” Murphy said the other 5% can be “very serious abuse or neglect,” child maltreatment not necessarily so closely linked with poverty.
But a high-profile death case that ends up in criminal court can change the way the system responds to all cases, he added.
“If there’s a big scandal in DCFS over a kid dying, for the next few years numbers go way up — someone stubs their toe and it’s in court.”
Charles Golbert, the current Cook County public guardian, said even when a child dies and county staff were found to have done “a horrible job,” criminal prosecutions of child welfare workers — like those in AJ’s case — alter frontline practice in ways that can cause harm.
In those instances, Golbert said, “you’re going to see workers making overly cautious knee-jerk decisions to remove kids who maybe shouldn’t be removed.”
A racist impact?
Critics of the spike in investigations and removals in Illinois say the impact lands most heavily in Black communities. Black children made up 39.5% of children who entered foster care here in 2020, but only about 16% of the general child population that year, according to a report submitted to a federal court under an ongoing consent decree.
As a white child living in a middle-class community in northern Illinois, AJ was not demographically representative of most children in Illinois’ foster care system. But advocates say low-income Black families are now paying for the fallout from his death.
According to the consent decree report, in terms of length of time spent in protective custody, disproportionality for Black children is highest in the northern region of the state where AJ lived. Nearly half the kids in foster care for more than three years were Black in that part of the state, although they make up less than a tenth of the total population of children in that region.
“This is a fundamentally racist system,” said Aaron Goldstein, chief of the civil division of the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender, who represents parents whose children have been taken into foster care. “The general consensus — even if it’s not publicly admitted — is that the system is meant to keep going and keep growing, which is ludicrous from my perspective because I don’t see how in the world DCFS is a reliable guardian of children in harm’s way.”
Goldstein said that if AJ Freund and his parents were Black, he believes child welfare workers would have removed him from the home — which in his case would have been the right decision, not an overreach of the child welfare system.
“In a way Freund died because of racism, because a white family was given much more deference than a Black family would have been given,” he said. “Then because of the tragic death, they now are taking more kids away. Who does that impact? It ends up being Black children.”
Leaving foster care at higher rates
While Illinois was an outlier in that its foster care population grew in 2020 — the federal numbers are delayed a year by data verification — it is also one of the few states that had a significant number of children leave the foster care system.
Contradicting another national trend, Illinois was one of only five states that increased the number of children leaving the system, while exits from foster care stalled in most of the country. Federal data show that Illinois saw 5,328 youth exiting the system in 2020, a 13% increase from 2019.
The 2020 departures from foster care, according to court monitors at the University of Illinois’ Children & Family Research Center School of Social Work, showed that the most common reason kids leave foster care is to reunify with parents, followed by a smaller number who were adopted and an even smaller number taken in by relatives or guardians.
Still, the increased number of exits were too few to offset the 17% rise in foster care entries, and too many youth still languish for too long in the system, court monitors have found. Although that is a longstanding problem in Illinois, the stalling of all but emergency court proceedings in the early months of the pandemic exacerbated this problem.
A repeating cycle?
Illinois’ child welfare system has a particular history worthy of examination, involving more aggressive child welfare agency enforcement following past tragedies. In 1993, 3-year-old Joseph Wallace was killed by his mother, who had mental illness, after he was taken out of foster care and returned to her.
The murder sparked reforms, but also a dramatic rise in removals by the Department of Children and Family Services: Three decades ago, when Joseph was killed, 23,000 children were in foster care in Illinois, according to The Chicago Tribune. Just four years later that number had more-than doubled, to 51,000.
“That media frenzy and coverage really garnered rightful public outcry. But the issue was the response: to remove more children and separate more families instead of looking at families holistically, supporting families who might need it. Illinois’ numbers spiked but safety did not improve,” said Gassenheimer of the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. “Illinois could and should have known not to go down that same path, and yet here we are.”