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Hundreds of Illinois’ most vulnerable students are falling behind in school through no fault of their own: The state simply doesn’t have enough homes for them.

Each year, hundreds of children in the state’s foster care system get stuck in limbo — in psychiatric facilities, juvenile detention centers, or even social workers’ offices — as caseworkers try to find suitable placements. The problem has become so intractable that people in legal circles refer to it as “placement crisis docket.”

Child welfare advocates have called this problem an egregious civil rights violation. Apart from issues of unlawful detainment, under federal law, all U.S. children are entitled to equal opportunities in education regardless of the status of their parents or guardians.

But the problem of kids stuck without a placement has only gotten marginally better since 2018, according to Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert and attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union. That’s when a ProPublica investigation found that nearly 30% of all Illinois children in foster care who were hospitalized for psychiatric conditions were kept in hospitals longer than was medically necessary.

In those situations, the most difficult-to-care-for kids — many of whom have faced severe emotional trauma due to abuse or neglect — receive about an hour of instruction a day, as a Department of Children and Family Services scrambles to find appropriate foster care placements in an overwhelmed system. Golbert called education in these psychiatric facilities “a joke.”

But keeping kids in psych wards months after they should have been released is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Illinois’ foster placement problems and the issues that cause youth in foster care to fall behind academically. For thousands of children who are supposed to be attending a school, simply being moved from one home to another can lead to missed school days, in part because school records are not always quickly transferred.

However, the state doesn’t compile and report data on absences and truancy for youth in foster care.

Both the Illinois State Board of Education and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) responded to open records requests from Chalkbeat seeking that information by saying they had no applicable records. In follow-up emails, department officials said that data exists for individual school districts.

That makes it hard to know how much issues like inappropriate placements, placement transfers, or other problems contribute to foster youth falling behind in school.

But the numbers are clear in one respect: Foster care youth are trailing their peers on every academic measure that the state does track.

The main federal K-12 education law, reauthorized in 2015, requires states to track graduation rates and math and reading proficiency for foster care youth. According to the most recent state report card data for the 2022-23 school year:

  • 56% of foster youth statewide graduated high school in four years, compared to 87.6% of Illinois students overall.
  • 6.7% of foster youth statewide were proficient in math, compared to 26.9% of students statewide.
  • 12.6% of foster youth statewide were proficient in reading and language arts, compared to 34.6% of students statewide.

Foster students’ outcomes are even lower in Chicago Public Schools, the largest district in the state. According to state data, 53.2% of foster students in CPS graduated in four years, 9.2% were proficient in reading, and 3.9% were proficient in math.

Chicago Public Schools did not respond to multiple inquiries from Chalkbeat seeking comment and interviews for this story.

Foster kids can miss a month or more of school

The number of foster children kept in hospitals beyond medical necessity over behavioral issues climbed steadily from 75 kids in 2014 to an all-time-high of 356 in 2021 before tapering off to 284 in fiscal year 2023, which ended June 30, state records show.

It’s a small percentage of the roughly 20,000 foster kids in Illinois — but the lack of suitable placements for kids like this has drawn intense scrutiny from advocates, lawmakers and others.

The state refers to these children as “BMN youth,” meaning they stay in hospitals “beyond medical necessity.” But this sanitized description fails to capture the suffering those youth experience.

In his role as Cook County public guardian, Golbert said he’s worked with children who have missed an entire semester or even a full year of school while they’ve waited for a placement.

“Even under the best of circumstances, as a practical matter, a month or more of missed school starts to become very difficult to make up by the start of the next semester,” Golbert said.

For example, Golbert recounted the story of a 15-year-old transgender boy who was psychiatrically hospitalized from Dec. 25, 2022, until Oct. 26, 2023 — close to a year — after his parents, who don’t respect his gender identity, refused to pick him up. During that time, he read every book available to him, but is currently a year behind in school because of his hospitalization.

Another 15-year-old student was only supposed to spend one month in the hospital. But he’s been there since January and is not receiving special education services to which he’s legally entitled. Instead, he gets an hour of school each day on the computer, where “he struggles to engage and has made little to no academic progress,” Golbert said.

DCFS Chief of Staff Jassen Strokosch said youth in foster care in psychiatric settings “need intensive treatment” and are a threat to themselves or others. That means the priority is getting them emotionally and mentally stable, and then finding a proper placement for them. Schooling comes later.

“It would be inappropriate to attempt to have a normal educational experience taking place within that setting. They’re just not ready for it,” Strokosch added. “Simply being [in a hospital beyond medical necessity] does not mean that they are also in a place where they’re capable of returning to a full-time educational curriculum.”

During the time youth stay in hospitals, they’re kept indoors for most of the day, receive minimal schooling, have limited ability to see friends and family, can’t have phones, and can’t participate in sports or other extracurricular activities, Golbert said.

In addition, they see other children going through acute psychiatric episodes and face the pain of seeing other kids their age picked up by family as they languish long past the date they were supposed to be released.

“It’s hard to think of a better way to tell a child, ‘You don’t matter,’ than keeping the child locked up in a psychiatric ward for months on end because [the state] has nowhere to place you,” Golbert wrote in a 2021 court filing about the issue.

DCFS attributes the dip to increasing placement capacity in a foster system that’s still roughly 500 beds short of the number Illinois had prior to a budget impasse between 2015 and 2017, when partisan political disputes led to state funding cuts that resulted in dozens of group home closures.

After that, the agency vowed to create new specialty foster homes for youth with severe emotional and behavioral problems. But few ever materialized, experts say.

“The reason we are seeing this problem is they don’t have sufficient community-based resources to keep kids in the most integrated [least restrictive] setting possible,” said attorney Heidi Dalenberg, who heads an institutional reform project for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. “It is a resource problem that has not yet been fixed, and it doesn’t work just to clear the pipeline every six months. That’s not a solution.”

Dalenberg argued that the real solution is offering more supports and services to families before there are cases of neglect — and offering more help to foster parents before they relinquish custody of children who are difficult to care for to the state.

That’s a key part of a new task force created by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2022 to deal with problems in the foster care system, and something that DCFS has been dedicating more resources toward.

But many advocates say the agency still has a long way to go.

Foster placement moves can prompt school transfers, missed days

When it comes to education, many foster children — not just those who are locked up in hospitals or jails — struggle to stay afloat, said Nora Collins-Mandeville, a colleague of Dalenberg’s who is a lead attorney in ongoing litigation about problems in the foster care system.

Kids may not show up to school because they’re struggling with emotional difficulties stemming from serious, unresolved trauma, she said. Or they might easily miss school days after being moved from one placement to another.

“Every time you move a kid, you are, by definition, knocking them back a ways,” Collins-Mandeville said.

To streamline the process and minimize class disruption as much as possible, state youth-in-care liaison Emma Bandy, who works for the Illinois State Board of Education, advises school districts and sometimes social workers and parents on best practices. The state guideline is that transferring foster youth to a new school shouldn’t take longer than three days, and there are special rules in place to expedite records transfers.

“We know when a child comes into care, they’re already experiencing such a disruption,” Bandy said. “It’s the instability and disruption when it comes to their school, family, social supports. This complex trauma can significantly affect them in a lot of ways.”

Three days for changing schools is already too long, Bandy said. But she said didn’t know how often the process might result in more than three missed school days.

From where he sits, Glenn Wood could tell her it’s not uncommon. The superintendent for the Plainfield Community Consolidated School District, Wood said foster placement transfers can often result in a week or two of missed school days. So not only are new students grappling with being in a new place, a new school and whatever trauma they may still be dealing with — but they’re already starting off behind.

“It rarely happens the next day,” said Wood, whose roughly 25,000-student school district is home to many foster youth.

Then there’s the challenge of helping them feel welcomed in a new school while teachers and guidance counselors work hard at establishing trust: “You can’t really do as much academically until kids feel safe and welcome at their school.”

On average, Illinois youth in foster care move to a new placement about every eight-and-a-half months, said Golbert. For a child that enters care as a baby and ages out of the system at 21, that’s almost 30 different placements.

The number of transfers is in line with the national average, according to state data, but some advocates say it’s still too many. Moving a student to a new school is often par for the course if social workers determine that the transfer is in the youth’s best interest, such as moving to a new part of the state to live with family rather than being in a large residential facility with many foster youth where they might have stayed at the same school.

“It’s really important that we look at whether the school district of origin where that child came from, or the new school district is the appropriate setting for them to be in,” said Strokosch, chief of staff for DCFS. “There’s a lot that goes into those decisions. It takes some time to figure out sometimes what’s in the best interest of that child, especially at the beginning of them coming into care where we don’t necessarily know that child and what their needs are.”

Strokosch stressed that caseworkers are actively engaged in every foster youth’s life, with more than 20 meetings over the course of a year and frequent communication.

A spokeswoman for ISBE said she didn’t immediately offer data showing how often foster placement changes might result in more than three days of missed school. In a follow-up email, DCFS spokeswoman Heather Tarczan said they have “educational advisors” and legal aides who provide oversight on schools sticking to best practices.

New collaboration on Illinois foster care spurs hope

Illinois’ foster care system has fallen under intense scrutiny in recent years for its failure to promptly find appropriate homes for youth. The problem fueled criticism, legislative hearings, and even lawsuits.

Earlier this year, DCFS Director Marc Smith announced he would resign at the end of the year. He was the 11th official to lead the troubled system in fewer than eight years.

But some child welfare advocates — Golbert included — say they have reason for hope.

Under Pritzker, the DCFS budget has nearly doubled climbing from a low of $1.07 billion after years of austerity to more than $1.88 billion planned for next fiscal year despite the rest of Illinois’ human services budget being cut 5%, by $544 million, in the latest budget signed in June.

“For the first time they can’t say it’s money,” Golbert said. “It’s a matter of having those resources translate into improved outcomes.”

Earlier this year, Pritzker’s office also announced plans to overhaul the state’s mental health and foster systems for youth. The blueprint calls for changes to foster care system capacity and cutting bureaucratic red tape to make it easier for youth and families to receive state services.

In August, Pritzker signed into law legislation — which cleared the legislature unanimously — creating a new position in state government to oversee Illinois’ effort to overhaul behavioral health services for foster youth.

The new law also streamlines cooperation between different state agencies meant to get help to foster youth and families quicker. Some experts consider this provision to be a key piece of Pritzker’s efforts.

It also broadens the support and placements community-based providers can offer to youth in crisis, increases transparency around staffing practices at residential and institutional facilities, and sets a goal of making a plan to offer annual mental health screenings to all K-12 students in the state.

Dana Weiner, a senior policy fellow for Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago who leads Pritzker’s task force on foster care issues, said the amount of cooperation she sees now between different agencies involved in foster care, including ISBE — along with the legislation signed into law in August and the funding DCFS now has at its disposal — give her hope.

“On both sides of the aisle there was so much support for help for families,” Weiner said. “I think people can really get behind this plan because it lays out a methodical data-driven approach to solving a set of problems.”