History doesn’t repeat itself,” it’s been said, “but it rhymes.” In Illinois, child welfare history is rhyming, and that is bringing down tragedy upon the state’s children in ways old and new.
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services learned from those mistakes. A bold DCFS leader, Jess McDonald, embraced efforts to keep families together. The number of children taken from their parents went down – and independent court monitors found that child safety improved. In 2003, the lead monitor told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that “Children are safer now than they were when the state had far more foster children.” Their 2018 report shows that safety continued to improve all the way through about 2011, when the agency was undermined by budget cuts.
Between fiscal years 2018 and 2020 the number of children torn from their homes in Illinois has skyrocketed 30%. The 17% increase in 2019 alone was the second highest increase in the country that year and it came at a time when nationwide, entries into foster care were declining. In fact, even as the number of children taken nationwide approaches a 21-year low, the number taken in Illinois has hit a 21-year high.
That’s because most cases are nothing like the horror stories. Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect. Others fall between the extremes. That helps explain why at least six separate studies, two of them massive in scope and looking specifically at cases from Illinois, have found that, in typical cases, children left in their own homes typically fare better in later life even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care. It’s all coming down hardest on Black children who are in Illinois foster care at triple their rate in the general population.
Once again, a foster-care panic is making all children less safe.