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Some youths in Illinois' foster system who are hard to place are being left in jail

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Illinois, the state's child welfare agency is one of the entities in charge of what happens to kids and teens charged in crimes. But some youth are staying locked up in jail for weeks or months after they should have been released. That's because the agency can't find a better place for them to live. As Patrick Smith of member station WBEZ reports, it's part of a national problem for young people in both the criminal justice and foster care systems.

PATRICK SMITH, BYLINE: I'm standing outside of the Cook County Juvenile Center on Chicago's Near West Side. Inside the jail here right now is a teenage boy who has been wrongfully imprisoned for more than eight months. The state's been unable to find an appropriate place for him to live, so they're leaving him in jail. He spent his 17th birthday locked up. According to data from the Cook County chief judge's office, last year there were 84 young people just like him, young people in the care of the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services who were left in the juvenile detention center after a judge had ordered their release. Their average length of stay inside was more than 53 days.

ANDREA LUBELFELD: The judge has not ordered them held. The judge has ordered them released. So every day that they sit in the detention center not being released, it's just not right.

SMITH: That's Andrea Lubelfeld, chief of the juvenile division for the Cook County Public Defender. She says having these young people housed in jail by the child welfare system has been eating at her since she took over the position last August.

LUBELFELD: These are children. They've been taken away from their families and suffered trauma. Every day they sit in the detention center they are being harmed and experiencing more trauma.

SMITH: Richard Wexler leads the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, based in Virginia. He says the juvenile housing crisis is just one extreme example of an issue seen across the country.

RICHARD WEXLER: In state after state after state, we are seeing news accounts similar to yours, but it's almost like a fill-in-the-blank thing. Instead of jail, it's repurposed detention center or awful out-of-state institution or, you know, sleeping on chairs in an office.

SMITH: To be sure, many of the young people who wind up in the Cook County Jail are very difficult to place. Officials say most have significant mental health or behavioral needs on top of the fact that they've been in trouble with the law. Wexler says one approach would be to cut the number of children who are taken away from their parents in the first place. It's the main message of his group that too many kids are placed in the care of the state because of conditions related to poverty rather than actual abuse or neglect. But he says that doesn't relieve state officials of their responsibility to find appropriate housing for the young people already in their care.

KEITH POLAN: The impact of children on these kinds of placements is horrific. So you are piling harm upon harm upon harm.

SMITH: Keith Polan is with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and he sees this a bit differently.

POLAN: I think it would be more harmful for us to find a placement that doesn't meet the kids' needs instead of taking the time to find the most appropriate placement.

SMITH: Polan says they're working on expanding the available housing for kids who end up in jail and see signs of progress. He adds that some activists don't understand how difficult it can be to find the right home for incarcerated young people.

POLAN: It's not as simple as letting them go. These kids have identified that they need treatment or they need specific supports to be successful in the community. And the challenge has been finding the best and most appropriate service and support for these kids.

SMITH: In the meantime, these young people, some of the most marginalized in society, are being kept behind bars by the very agency that is charged with caring for them.

For NPR News, I'm Patrick Smith in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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