The Cook County Public Guardian has filed a class action complaint against the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services over the agency’s treatment of children at state psychiatric facilities.
Charles Golbert, acting county guardian, filed the complaint Dec. 13 in federal court in Chicago on behalf of several plaintiffs identified by first name and last initial, as well as a similarly situated class, saying children who were medically cleared for discharge from a psychiatric hospital were instead forced to stay in locked psych wards, “causing immense harm.” The complaint referred to the practice as “holding children beyond medical necessity.”
According to the complaint, this practice constitutes a violation of 14th Amendment due process rights and failure to provide medical care obligations, while also running afoul of the federal Rehabilitation Act and Americans with Disabilities Act, since program participants are qualified as individuals with mental health, intellectual or developmental disabilities who were denied the benefits of being placed in less restrictive housing.
“The effects of holding children (beyond medical necessity) BMN are heartbreaking at an individual level and staggering when multiplied among all the children who have been subjected to the practice,” Golbert said in the complaint. “Simply put, holding a child BMN is inhumane. Being unnecessarily locked in a psychiatric hospital undermines — even eliminates — the precious stability that children formed during their admission. Children in psychiatric hospitals receive no formal schooling. They are locked indoors every day. Their ability to visit with siblings and family members is drastically curtailed. And psychiatric facilities can be dangerous, particularly for vulnerable children, when other patients express psychiatric and behavior disorders.”
Golbert said the state’s knowledge of the practice goes back as far as 1988 as a result of another federal complaint, BH v. Johnson, and noted in 2015 the General Assembly directed DCFS to track all children being held beyond medical necessity. He accused DCFS of reaping “false public relations benefit on the backs of the children it is charged to protect” by saying it’s saving taxpayer dollars through cuts to residential and group home care, which contributes to keeping children hospitalized longer than needed.
In addition to DCFS, named defendants include seven former DCFS directors and acting directors, as well as supervisors of the agency’s central matching unit, which is supposed to ensure “therapeutically appropriate placement upon discharge from a psychiatric hospital.” Also named are past heads of DCFS’ Psychiatric Hospitalization Project, clinical practice deputy directors, guardianship administrators and DCFS workers who attended weekly monitoring meetings for children detained allegedly beyond medical necessity.
According to the complaint, which cited an Illinois Auditor General performance audit, the number of children held past need more than doubled — from 75 in 2014 to 168 in 2015 — and more than 800 children were so held from 2015 through 2017. Figures show nearly 30 percent of all youths “in DCFS care who were hospitalized were held beyond medical necessity, for a collective total of more than 27,000 days.”
The class would include all children who, since March 4, 2008, were “subject to abuse, neglect or dependency petitions filed in” Cook County Circuit Court, placed in DCFS guardianship or held in a psychiatric hospital for a week or longer beyond being cleared for discharge, provided they are 20 years or younger as of Dec. 13. There would be seven class subgroups divided by the tenure of DCFS directors.
In addition to class certification and a jury trial, the complaint seeks compensatory and punitive damages as well as legal fees.
Golbert and the plaintiffs class are represented in the action by attorneys with the firm of Loevy & Loevy, in Chicago, including Arthur Loevy, Jon Loevy and Russell Ainsworth.