CHICAGO (AP) - Reported claims of abuse, violence and prostitution at residential treatment centers where some wards of the state are housed are “appalling” and “unacceptable,” but nothing new, Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Director Bobbie Gregg told lawmakers Wednesday.
The outgoing director’s comments came during the first of several hearings convened after a series of Chicago Tribune stories documented youth problems at Illinois’ roughly 50 such facilities, which are privately run but regulated and largely funded by the state. The scrutiny comes during the transition of power from Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn to Republican Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner, who’s expected to name a director after Gregg’s departure this month.
Roughly 1,400 juveniles stay in the facilities on any given day and many have histories of abuse, neglect or behavioral problems. The newspaper found over 400 reports of sexual assault or abuse of wards, over 1,000 physical assaults and nearly 30,000 runaways from 2011 to 2013. The assault allegations include youth-on-youth cases as well as alleged violence by staff. The newspaper cited interviews with former residents and employees, police reports and agency data.
“Sadly …. the problems are not new and they are broader and more complex than the articles convey,” Gregg told legislators. “They have plagued child welfare in Illinois at least since the 1980s, and perhaps before.”
Most centers are run by nonprofit groups. One in Rockford - Rock River Academy and Residential Center - is managed by a for-profit company and has disputed some claims in the Tribune’s reports. Officials with Universal Health Services Inc., which has facilities nationwide, said there are many success stories.
Still, there was no disagreement with the allegations Wednesday. DCFS has removed some juveniles.
Some former wards who testified said they needed a better way to report problems and grievances. Other care experts noted a lack of resources and dwindling staff as part of the problem.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said facility management needs a closer look, particularly in how runaways are handled. He said some are later abused or lured into prostitution and cited an example where a resident was turned away from a suburban center after being told she was no longer on the roster.
“This is a horrible system. This is something where more money is not the answer,” he said. “It has to be people being held accountable here.”
Gregg, the agency’s seventh director in three years, said she hoped the hearings would help drive reforms. The agency has been the subject of other media reports, including an investigation of child-abuse and neglect deaths by the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ.
Gregg said she’s leaving Jan. 19 because her tenure wasn’t renewed. Rauner is expected to name several agency directors after taking office Monday. His spokesman did not return messages, but has previously said Rauner is committed to an agency “transformation.”
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