DCFS accused of keeping children inside makeshift shelters in city offices

CHICAGO (WLS) -- At least three youths in DCFS custody spent the night inside an agency office building on Chicago's South Side instead of in contracted emergency sheltering, according to Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert.

Golbert, whose office represents "thousands of abused and neglected children," said all three are his team's clients.

These revelations first came up in juvenile court and shortly after, according to Golbert, when a DCFS attorney and another agency worker acknowledged the public guardian's client had spent the night inside offices at 1911 South Indiana Avenue because the licensed shelter was at capacity.

"After the case was over, it kind of just casually came up, 'Oh by the way he spent the night at this office,'" Golbert told ABC 7.

"The worker was told 'we have no beds. You have to go elsewhere.' So he ended up spending the night in office space," explained Golbert, going on to say, "And then we looked into it and we learned of a second teenager who spent the night at this same office."

Within weeks, Golbert said a third client reported sleeping in a conference room-turned-makeshift shelter and that a DCFS social worker confirmed the space's existence.

"Four beds, a crib, a television set and a refrigerator," said Golbert of this space.

A DCFS spokesman confirmed the existence of a room with sleeping facilities to ABC 7 Wednesday, but stressed the agency works to "exhaust every other option" before bringing children to its offices and does not see such spaces as a replacement for shelters.

The agency framed in-office facilities as a last line of defense- providing an appropriate place to change a diaper and to have formula available, for example, if police show up with a baby in the middle of the night. In fact, DCFS's spokesman said, there are rooms with cribs and other items in offices statewide.

DCFS said it could not comment on the specific cases Golbert referred to and also said it is "really tough to say" if in-office stays are on the rise.

"We need more shelter beds," the agency spokesman said, explaining that the number available at contracted facilities was significantly diminished during the previous DCFS director's administration; the available number of beds, according to the DCFS spokesman, is now in the 40s with 38 kids currently in DCFS-contracted shelters.

Disturbed by these revelations, Golbert said he has written about the incidents to the federal judge overseeing a consent decree DCFS is required to follow for reforms. Golbert said to "take kids away from their parents and then not even have a bedroom for them is violative of state and federal law and this federal consent decree."

The ACLU, which is also involved with that federal case, B.H. v. Smith, said it's "disappointing" to have heard about these allegations through abnormal channels. The ACLU spokesman added that the ACLU and DCFS regularly meet and will discuss this soon; the ACLU also echoed DCFS's assessment that more beds are needed.

"You don't treat people like this," said Golbert.

A DCFS spokesman released a statement Thursday morning saying, "Many DCFS offices across the state must be prepared to protect infants, children and youth who will often arrive exhausted and in need of clothing, food, diapers, formula and other necessities. This is not a substitute for shelter, and DCFS is working in partnership with providers to secure additional shelter options for those in need. It is our top priority as a department to ensure the vulnerable children and families we serve have at the very least a safe place to stay, and ultimately a safe place to call home."
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