An emergency housing facility at the center of court case that led to the state’s Department of Children and Family Services director being held in contempt of court was the subject of 161 service calls to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department in 2021.
The 12-bed facility is the Southern Thirty Adolescent Center near Mount Vernon. It is run by Lutheran Children and Family Services, and has a $1.9 million contract to house children in DCFS custody aged 11 to 17.
The facility is designed as a temporary shelter, offering children access to educational, mental health and other appropriate services for up to 30 days.
But DCFS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said the average stay there is 107 days.
It’s the same facility where DCFS placed a 13-year-old boy, identified only as C.R.M. in court documents, in emergency custody for months despite a judge’s order to move him to a more appropriate setting. Earlier this month Cook County Judge Patrick T. Murphy cited DCFS Director Marc Smith for contempt for failing to relocate the boy to a therapeutic foster home.
C.R.M. remained in STAC for nearly five months. Before arriving there on Aug. 14, the teen, who has severe mental disabilities, was originally placed in another temporary shelter in Chicago where he slept in a utility closet.
In the five months C.R.M. was at STAC, there were at least 26 calls made to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department.
Call logs from the Sheriff’s Department from Dec. 14, 2020, to Dec. 14, 2021, showed calls from STAC for fights, criminal damage to property, unspecified juvenile incidents and alarms. But the vast majority of calls, 97, involved runaways.
“The sheriff’s office uses significant resources responding to multiple calls for service each week at this facility,” Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Bullard said.
STAC follows a DCFS rule that requires a report to be made if a youth leaves campus, according to an email from Sara LoCoco, a LCFS spokesperson.
On some days there are multiple calls reporting runaways. Last year, there were two calls reporting runaways on Sept. 27, and three on June 30 and July 8. There were eight such calls during the first week of April.
STAC was originally designed to serve the southern 30 counties in Illinois. At some point, LoCoco said that direction changed, but she did not elaborate. STAC is located in a rural area of Jefferson County — five miles from Mount Vernon.
The facility is surrounded by trees and a few residential homes. There is no public transportation nearby. Its closest neighbor is a business that rents heavy equipment. Children from Cook County, like C.R.M., placed at STAC are nearly a five-hour drive away from home.
“Illinois does not utilize locked residential facilities, and in spite of the best efforts to provide care for children living in these facilities, some youth choose to try to return home to their families and familiar living situations,” McCaffrey, the DCFS spokesman, said in an email. “In these cases, DCFS works with local law enforcement to help return the children to a safe space where they can get the care and services needed.”
McCaffrey said there are 50 emergency placement beds throughout the state, including eight new beds added recently in Cook County.
The Jan. 8 contempt charge pertaining to C.R.M. and a 9-year-old girl who was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital despite being eligible for release was purged on Jan. 13 and the $1,000-a-day fine vacated upon the two children’s placement in appropriate housing.
But another contempt charged was filed that day regarding a 17-year-old boy held in a psychiatric hospital since Sept. 10.
Those children are examples of 356 who were placed in inappropriate settings for an average of 55 days, according to the Cook County Public Guardian’s Office. There were so many children that Murphy, the presiding judge over the child protection division, created a separate docket for children housed in psychiatric wards or emergency placements, like STAC.
Emails obtained by Capitol News Illinois show the level of difficulty faced by facilities like STAC and how DCFS officials responded to them.
In a July 9, 2021, email, Diana Murphy, who works for DCFS, wrote Rod Remolina, who works in the DCFS Advocacy Office, about ongoing property damage. Remolina had been contacted by Sen. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, after her office received complaints.
“Yes, there have been concerns at this facility,” Diana Murphy wrote. “The building undergoes ongoing repairs due to youth destroying the property. At this time, they are on a corrective action plan to repair their doors which have been destroyed by our youth.”
The email outlined staffing issues and high turnover rates.
“This results in inexperienced and untrained staff supervising high-risk youth in a temporary 30-day place,” she wrote. “Which brings us to the second issue, that most youth stay at STAC over 30 days. STAC is not equipped or designed to keep youth long term, yet, many times it has been utilized as a long-term placement.”
Susan Feltman, executive director at STAC, wrote DCFS to request more funding for six youth care workers at about $15-per-hour, a second maintenance worker and a recreational specialist. She asked for an additional $647,625 for the year.
“It is being submitted for review and we request a response no later than March 26, 2021,” Feltman wrote. “If we do not receive a response by 03/26/21 or if the proposal is denied, we will begin the process of moving toward closure of Southern Thirty Adolescent Center.”
DCFS gave the facility an increase, and STAC stayed open.
“The Department of Children and Family Services works with all of its partners and residential providers to provide a safe living space for children who are in its care,” McCaffrey said. “In the case of this facility, DCFS provided additional funding to enable the facility to hire more staff and expand therapeutic services for youth in care.”
The recent contempt charges — as well as other high-profile incidents including a child found frozen to death in a Chicago alley after two abuse allegations were reported, and the murder of an investigator during a welfare call — have led lawmakers to schedule legislative hearings into DCFS and its $1 billion budget.
Rep. Camille Lilly, D-Chicago, who chairs the House Human Services Appropriations Committee, called a virtual public hearing into “the fiscal and operational shortcomings at DCFS.” It is scheduled for noon Friday.
“The current concerns with the DCFS have made it necessary to call a hearing so we can better understand the needs of the children and form holistic, long-term solutions. These problems have been going on for years and our focus is on the children and workers, so I request everyone in the hearing to conduct themselves in a serious, bipartisan fashion without losing focus,” Lilly said.
The Senate’s Health Committee has also scheduled a virtual hearing on DCFS matters, at 3 p.m. Monday.
Republicans had called for hearings into DCFS on Jan. 13 amid a swirl of headlines surrounding the agency.
DCFS investigator Deidre Silas was buried last week. Silas was sent alone to a house in Thayer on Jan. 4 to check the welfare of six children. She was found by Sangamon County Sheriff’s deputies, bludgeoned and stabbed to death. Benjamin Reed, who lived at the house, is facing murder charges for her death.
Four days later, the body of 6-year-old Damari Perry was found partially burned in an alley in Gary, Indiana. The North Chicago boy was reported missing by his mother on Jan. 5. Damari was taken into the state’s care after his birth in 2015, but two years later he was returned along with his siblings to his mother’s care. There were two more abuse allegations that followed, but they were both unfounded.
Damari remained with his mother until late December when prosecutors said he was thrown in a cold shower as punishment. When the 6-year-old was found, he was naked and partially wrapped in plastic. An autopsy revealed hypothermia was the cause of death. Jannie Perry, the child’s mother, and two siblings have been charged in connection with his death.
House GOP Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, sent a letter to Lilly urging her to hold hearings into the department.
“The children of Illinois need a functioning DCFS to ensure their safety. As committee chair, it is your duty and obligation to schedule a hearing so the General Assembly can get to the bottom of the critical question of what is happening at DCFS. The Republican members are prepared to meet immediately,” Durkin wrote.