More troubling reports emerged this week concerning the safety of young patients at an Uptown psychiatric facility even as child welfare officials scramble to find new placements for children in state care who remain hospitalized there.
On Monday, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services launched its 19th hotline investigation this year involving Chicago Lakeshore Hospital — and its third in recent days — after a 9-year-old child reported that a staff member had choked her.
The incident allegedly happened Thursday while the staff member restrained the girl, who was said to be provoking other patients, according to DCFS. The foster child was admitted to the hospital Sept. 25 and was due to be discharged about two weeks ago but remained stuck there without another appropriate placement, records reviewed by the Tribune show.
DCFS officials said they spoke to the girl Friday during one of the agency’s regular visits, but she did not disclose any issues and had no bruises or other visible injuries.
In addition, a 17-year-old boy was still missing Wednesday after he ran away from child welfare staff Monday in an alleyway outside the hospital, DCFS officials said. The agency was planning to take him to a downstate residential treatment center.
Admitted to the hospital six months ago for risk of suicide, the teen long had been cleared for discharge from the psychiatric facility, but the state’s beleaguered child welfare agency struggled to find him a home with appropriate support services, records show.
The state stopped admitting children in the care of DCFS to Chicago Lakeshore about three weeks ago amid separate state and federal investigations of the hospital and an increased number of calls about the facility to the agency’s hotline.
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On Saturday, DCFS began stationing staff 24 hours a day at the hospital to better monitor young patients in state care. The around-the-clock monitoring came after two new incidents, including a hotline call alleging that two patients, a 16-year-old transgender girl and a 14-year-old boy, fondled each other under a blanket in a hospital day room while staff was nearby.
DCFS officials said the agency will continue to have a constant presence at the hospital until the last child in its care is moved out. As of Tuesday, there were 11 DCFS children and teens in the hospital. A 20-year-old patient who still is in DCFS’ care is also hospitalized at Chicago Lakeshore.
The state agency has been hauled into federal court twice since Friday as it battles with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois over concerns about the psychiatric facility, which has a separate 60-bed children’s building two blocks south of the main hospital.
The ACLU, which monitors DCFS through a decades-old federal consent decree, has made several demands in recent weeks to ensure the safety of foster children at the hospital in the wake of separate investigations by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois that revealed the widespread problems.
Lawyers for the ACLU have lambasted DCFS for not providing the civil rights group with more thorough daily patient reports as promised. The ACLU also wants the DCFS staff members who are monitoring patients to have a clinical background and prior work experience with psychiatric hospitalizations.
Heidi Dalenberg, the ACLU’s general counsel, also urged U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso to grant more authority to the court-appointed expert and University of Illinois at Chicago psychiatrists who are working with DCFS to safely transfer the remaining children in state care out of the hospital.
READ MORE: DCFS, ACLU avoid court showdown for now over Uptown psychiatric hospital »
On Wednesday, Alonso issued a written order formalizing DCFS’ responsibility to cooperate with the outside experts regarding the transfers of children from the hospital.
The experts should be allowed to make announced visits to the secured facility, Alonso wrote. But he said DCFS “shall remain solely responsible for all placement decisions.”
The judge did not set specific qualifications for DCFS staff members who are monitoring the hospital, instead saying only that they be “appropriately qualified.”
Five of the 11 DCFS children at Lakeshore have been cleared for discharge but remain hospitalized as the agency works to find new homes with suitable support services — a problem that has long vexed state and child welfare officials across the country because of shrinking mental health resources and the lack of available beds in less-restrictive residential facilities.
Lakeshore CEO David Fletcher-Janzen said in written statements to the Tribune that the care and safety of the hospital’s patients remain his staff’s top priorities. Many of the hotline investigations were prompted by calls from the hospital, whose employees are mandated by state law to report suspected child abuse and neglect.
Hospital and DCFS officials have said such complaints are to be expected given the complex mental health and behavioral problems of its patients. They also said some false reporting is common, especially among younger patients stuck in the hospital beyond their suggested discharge date who want to be in a less-restrictive setting.
The missing 17-year-old boy had been hospitalized since May 17 before fleeing during an attempt to move him to a residential treatment center. DCFS spokesman Neil Skene said teenage runaways are an ongoing challenge for child welfare officials.
“We don’t lock young people in, and we don’t shackle them when we take them somewhere, so runaways do happen,” he said. “He just spent time in a psychiatric hospital, and he seized a moment to run. Our focus right now is on finding him.”
Skene said a judge in Champaign County, where the boy is from, issued an “apprehension warrant” at the agency’s request that instructs authorities not to hold him in detention when he is found.
READ MORE: Watchdogs want outside investigation of Chicago psychiatric hospital where troubled teens allegedly were sexually abused »
A Tribune review of Chicago police reports revealed this was at least the third attempted escape in recent months involving Chicago Lakeshore. A 16-year-old boy fled July 3 after battering paramedics who were trying to transport him to another hospital. The teen had threatened to “shoot up the hospital” the day before, according to the police report.
That same month, on July 25, police responded to a call reporting “a mental health disturbance” at the hospital and found staff restraining a 12-year-old patient on the sidewalk after she attempted to escape, police said. She was not physically injured, according to police.
DCFS has relied on the privately run hospital to treat 25 percent of the estimated 1,200 children in the agency’s care who receive inpatient psychiatric services each year. The facility accepts children other hospitals won’t treat because of the patients’ complex mental health and behavioral issues, according to DCFS.
With the hospital under intense scrutiny, acting Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert has filed multiple emergency motions in the juvenile court cases of 10 youths hospitalized at Lakeshore, demanding that the state agency provide a detailed accounting of their care.
Golbert told the Tribune that problems at Chicago Lakeshore have been well known since September. “During this entire period of time, it’s been like pulling teeth to get DCFS to do common-sense protections for hospitalized children,” he said.
Several of this year’s hotline investigations alleged hospital staff misconduct, including inadequate supervision as young patients fought or engaged in sexual activity. So far, DCFS officials said they found sufficient evidence to support four of the 19 allegations. Seven were not substantiated. Eight, including the most recent three hotline calls, continue to be investigated.
The hospital had only about 17 total hotline calls in the prior three years, according to DCFS statistics.
Acting DCFS Inspector General Meryl Paniak first raised concerns about the hospital’s problems in late September after learning, among other problems, that federal regulators have threatened to cut off hospital funding if potential safety issues unrelated to the hotline complaints weren’t fixed by Nov. 30.
The state hotline complaints and federal regulatory investigations sparked separate reports last month by the Tribune and ProPublica Illinois that documented allegations of lax supervision, potential suicide risks, inoperative hallway security cameras, improper use of psychotropic medications without consent and other documentation issues.
Hospital officials said they have installed a new security camera system and are working with federal regulators on all compliance issues.