Our Opinion: Chicago Tribune Article Correctly Identifies Illinois Foster Children Housing Problems, Ignores Difficult Solutions

A recent Tribune article fortunately reveals that Illinois’ child welfare system is struggling to find appropriate housing for several hundred foster children burdened by mental illness and severe behavior problems (“Hundreds of DCFS kids left in limbo in inappropriate settings, Cook County guardian finds,” December 22, Tribune), but unfortunately the article failed to address the complexity required to solve the problem.

The problem is that the state simply cannot build and staff multi-million dollar residential housing units and “wrap around” care programs for a few hundred foster kids and then allow the facilities and programs to sit dormant for months if the same types of kids aren’t constantly available without incurring enormous expense.

The clinical heart of residential care is creating a group setting, not creating an isolated, single-child setting. However, if DCFS could develop the high-end residential care needed now for the kids “waiting”, it would need at least an additional 200 residential slots.

And DCFS must be willing to “pay” for empty beds at any given time, in order to have “on demand” care. The Child Care Association of Illinois estimates that such an residential care system would cost an estimated $50 million annually to develop and maintain.

In addition to more residential facilities, DCFS would need expanded “wrap-around” care for families. This care involves daily visits from a therapist, 3 times weekly mentoring visits, or a nurse making regular checkups, one-on-one tutoring or school companion, and respite several hours per week provided to a parent or foster parent.

Wrap-around care has been proven to work with many kids who otherwise would have been in a group home, detention or for whom a residential slot is unavailable. However, it could take 6-8 months to develop such expanded care and could cost the state nearly $35 million.

Insufficient housing and care for foster children struggling with mental illness and behavior problems can be addressed—but only with substantial investments of money, time, and patience.

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