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Illinois Foster Care Services Fail Families

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For many years, the foster-care system has failed to provide acceptable services for families in need of its care. Jorge Matias, a Guatemalan father, lost the opportunity to raise his son based on the lack of communication and services from the foster-care system. A ProPublica investigation in Illinois found that the Department of Children and Family Service, or DCFS, has repeatedly failed in its obligation to assist Spanish-speaking families, by placing children with foster parents who don’t speak their child’s native language. Children who are cut off from their birth parents may end up with anglicized names, different religious beliefs, and/or immersed in a different culture.

Matias’s son was born with heroin in his system. After it cleared from his body, the DCFS placed the boy with foster parents, Jana and Peter Palenik. Matias knew both foster patents spoke perfect English, but he was not aware they were only speaking Slovak (their first language) at home. Shortly after his son turned one, Matias realized that his first word was “Mamka,” the word for ‘mother,’ not in Spanish or English, but in Slovak. When Matias realized his son was being raised to speak a different language, he became afraid that the process to win back custody of his son would be even more difficult.

For more than four decades, the Illinois DCFS has been under federal court order to place the children of Spanish-speaking parents with families who speak the same language, but the agency continues to place children in home where their parents’ language isn’t spoken, and in some cases, parents are also assigned to case workers who don’t speak Spanish. “You are destroying families,” said Layla Suleiman Gonzalez, a former federal court monitor. “Once you take away a child’s language, you’re taking his or her identity, his connection to the family, the community and the culture”. The agency has reported nearly 300 possible violations since 2005. Some cases might show as violations, but the agency argued that they were looking for the best interest for the children’s health, and not the language.

Reports show that DCFS agreed to increase the number of Spanish-speaking foster homes and hire more bilingual staff. And, in order to comply with the court order, it promised to maintain an accurate count of Latino families for whom Spanish was the primary language, but ProPublica reports that there have not been improvements. Caseworkers have also intentionally misclassified families. In 2009, for example, reviews found that staff in the Chicago-area office labeled families as white and English-speaking to reduce caseload number and bilingual staffing requirements.

There hasn’t been an organization that would examine if the DCFS complies with the court order. The Mexican American Legal Defense of Education Fund (MALDEF), a national civil group that represents families affected but the foster-care system, noted that the state of Illinois has repeatedly refused to provide information that would help ensure that DCFS programs are adequate. Leaders from MALDEF have indicated they are considering legal actions, but worry that the protections granted to families could be eliminated if DCFS is taken to court.

Source: Melissa Sanchez and Duaa Eldeib, “You Are Destroying Families,” June 2019, https://features.propublica.org/illinois-dcf20, s/illinois-child-welfare-agency-burgos-consent-decree-spanish-language-issues/.

Student Researcher: Sergio Perez (Sonoma State University)

Community Evaluator: Gabriela Bermudez (Up Valley Services, OLE Health)

Review Article with Credder