Two years ago, officials from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services vowed to rescue the children they called “stuck kids” — those in state care who had languished in psychiatric hospitals for weeks and sometimes months after doctors had cleared them for release because the agency could not find them proper homes.
But children continue to be held at psychiatric hospitals long after they are ready for discharge, a practice our reporting showed leaves them feeling isolated and alone, falling behind in school and at risk of being sexually and physically abused during prolonged hospitalization. […]
The number of psychiatric admissions that went beyond medical necessity first spiked in 2015, going from 88 the year before to 246. It continued to climb, reaching 301 in 2017, according to DCFS data obtained by ProPublica Illinois through a Freedom of Information Act request.
For the most recent complete fiscal year, from July 2019 to June 2020, 314 children remained hospitalized after doctors had cleared them for release, according to data [Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert] said he received from DCFS. The youngest, he said, was a 3-year-old girl. […]
During [the last fiscal year], those children spent an average of at least 50 days unnecessarily hospitalized at a cost of $6.3 million to taxpayers, he said. DCFS could not immediately provide the data to ProPublica Illinois. […]
A DCFS spokesman placed blame for the problem on a variety of factors, including the loss of hundreds of residential treatment beds and more than 2,000 foster homes in recent years. But as those placements were cut, officials did not replace them with therapeutic or specialized foster homes as they had promised. Such homes offer support beyond traditional foster homes for families caring for children with intense mental health needs.
In addition, some children become the state’s responsibility after their families, often desperate to get them the mental health services they cannot afford or provide, leave them at a psychiatric hospital instead of bringing them home when they are ready for release. Some children have complicated medical and mental health issues, making it more difficult for DCFS to find a placement for them. […]
In 2017, Chicago-based Kaleidoscope began a small pilot project to provide at-home support services for families of children hospitalized after they were medically cleared to leave. That program has served 86 children, according to the organization.
There are currently about 40 children in the program, but plans to expand have faltered because of DCFS turnover, trouble recruiting and retaining staff, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, said Kathy Grzelak, Kaleidoscope’s executive director. She said she wasn’t surprised the number of children hospitalized beyond medical necessity hadn’t gone down in the last two years. […]
Lawrence Hall, a residential center on Chicago’s North Side, also started a small program last year to address the hospitalization issue. It has served nine children, who have stayed an average of three to six months, though some have stayed much longer, said Kara Teeple, Lawrence Hall CEO.
She said the stubbornly high number of children who remain at psychiatric hospitals is both a reflection of their mental health needs and the lack of services that could prevent hospitalization.