What happens to the children who are wards of the state?

The daily emailed list of children wrongfully detained in the county’s juvenile detention center is a constant source of concern for Andrea Lubelfeld, who took over as chief of the Cook County Juvenile Justice Division last August. Those children are under the legal guardianship of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), but despite release orders from a judge, DCFS continues to leave the children in detention because it claims there are no placements for them. While the number of kids on that list has decreased slightly in recent months, it still hovers around 10 to 15. 

“The problem is even if there’s one kid, they shouldn’t be in [the detention center],” Lubelfeld said.

Lubelfeld explains that youth under the care of DCFS may have contact with the criminal legal system through multiple avenues. That DCFS uses a juvenile detention center to house children under its care is one distressing way children are trapped between the child welfare system and youth incarceration. In some cases, if the authorities arrest a young person, a judge can sentence them to DCFS, effectively making them a ward of the state—a sentence that a judge may consider more punitive than probation but less harsh than incarceration. In other cases, the state takes children away from parents who are accused of abuse or neglect. Lubelfeld says that arresting children who’ve become wards of the court after being removed from their homes entrenches them even further into the juvenile justice system.

“[The children become] what we call dually involved: they’re wards of the court because their parents have neglected or abused them so they’re on the child protection side as a victim, then they get arrested and they’re on the juvenile justice side,” Lubelfeld said. “DCFS is looking for a placement for them, they don’t have one, [and] so they are being detained.”

According to reporting earlier this summer from WBEZ, the shortage of adequate placements can in part be linked to a 2015 plan to eliminate roughly 500 residential beds in group homes and other institutions in an effort to replace them with therapeutic foster care homes that would partner with community-based services to provide wraparound care for youth. While advocates supported the plan, it failed in that the beds were cut before the therapeutic homes were established. 

Lubelfeld says that DCFS often claims it’s difficult to find placements for children held in juvenile detention because they have “high needs,” but that doesn’t absolve the department of their responsibility to “find reasonable and appropriate placement” for wards of the state and create those placements when needed.

“DCFS claims [they] can’t put [the kids] in a foster home because they’re going to run away or because they have all these mental health needs, so basically they blame the victim,” Lubelfeld said. “I’m not saying that these kids aren’t high needs, but I am saying that the law says [DCFS] has to create a placement, [they] can’t just leave them in jail. [Juvenile detention is] not an acceptable placement.”

“The system kind of abandons them”

Illinois detaining foster care youth in Cook County’s juvenile detention center is just one among the most recent examples of a broader trend where children under state guardianship are placed in woefully unsafe and inadequate congregate care settings. In 2016, news broke that Texas’ Child Protective Services (CPS) sent 37 foster care youth to a former juvenile detention center—all of whom were high needs and classified as having behavioral and emotional issues. Similar to Illinois’ Department of Child and Family Services, Texas CPS cited a shortage of beds as the reason for what Senator John Whitmire described as a “warehousing of troubled youth.” 

Advocates have also observed CPS navigating placement shortages by housing foster youth in CPS offices or conference rooms. In other cases, state authorities have left youth in hospitals. According to reporting earlier this summer by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Department of Human Services conference rooms have inadvertently become housing for foster youth for anywhere from weeks to months. DHS data shows that over 300 kids have spent at least one night in these conference rooms during the 2022 fiscal year—over triple the amount of the previous four years. 

Susan Mangold, Chief Executive Officer at the Juvenile Law Center, says there have been similar patterns of CPS leaving youth in hospital psychiatric wards after being brought in for mental health emergencies. 

“The system kind of abandons them there and the hospitals are screaming and hollering because it’s a very expensive place to keep a kid,” said Mangold. “They feel like this child is deteriorating and they don’t have the staffing to be able to provide the wraparound services that the young person needs because they’re a hospital.” 

Mangold attributes these cases where Child Protective Services leaves foster youth in inadequate congregate care settings to a “backlog or inadequate transition flow.” In other words, foster systems are woefully unprepared to care for youth who are often traumatized, scared, and have no choice but to depend on welfare services for their needs and safety. Regardless of how children enter these systems, they and their families are deeply affected by the physical, social, and emotional havoc of the experience. 

Even temporary placement in CPS community or conference rooms can leave youth vulnerable to sex trafficking and increase their likelihood of running away. Youth incarcerated in detention centers and kept there even after their release has been ordered are left vulnerable to a host of other negative outcomes impacting both their material stability and their mental health. Lubelfeld has seen firsthand how this harms the self-esteem and emotional well-being of the youth named on her daily lists. In an effort to hold DCFS accountable and monitor their progress on finding placements for youth still held in juvenile detention, judges meet weekly with both them and DCFS representatives. 

“[Youth] come to court weekly and they hear, ‘’oh, we tried to match him with this place, but they won’t accept him,’ or ‘he’s got this problem,’ and all they hear is: ‘I’m a bad kid and nobody wants me,’” Lubelfeld said. “They’re teenagers and their brains are developing. This is not a 35-year-old person who can say, ‘I get it, they’re looking for a place but there’s not a place right now.’ No, kids think it must be [their] fault.” 

Lubelfeld says that the process creates disappointment and feelings of rejection in a young person that can often compel them to run away once they do get placed in a home or alternative setting. 

“[They say] ‘I’m getting out of here—I’m not here because somebody cares about me and wants me to get better, I’m just here because somebody’s just doing their job and checking their box,’” Lubelfeld said. “That’s a pretty depressing situation.”

The foster care to prison pipeline

Being tossed around by the child welfare system can be enough to damage young people’s self-esteem, but that damage is further compounded if they enter the juvenile justice system while within CPS custody. It elevates the likelihood that youth become irrevocably trapped in the criminal legal system, falling into what’s known as the foster care-to-prison pipeline.

Much like the more well-known school-to-prison pipeline, the foster care-to-prison pipeline illustrates how the child welfare system mimics the function and design of the carceral system and increases the vulnerability of youth in foster care to criminalization later in life. Advocates say that the pipeline represents both direct and indirect avenues through which foster youth enter both the juvenile and adult justice system. For example, if a child in the welfare system acts out, instead of their families taking away phone privileges or grounding them, state authorities within CPS call the police, and the children end up in the system as offenders.

“[There’s] too frequently a direct line between child welfare and the juvenile justice system,” Mangold said. “If the kids are in extended foster care, meaning they’re over 18, then that would be the adult system.”

CPS placement can be a dramatically destabilizing experience for both youth and families, one that—however indirectly— increases the chance that those children will eventually return to the system. In addition to educational instability, kids can exit foster care without access to vital resources like stable housing, which can then lead them to commit minor crimes of survival or end up living on the streets.

Some argue that a shortage of foster parents has made it more difficult for CPS to find placements for youth under its care. However it’s impossible to look at the crisis facing youth in need of placement—whether they’re being held in detention centers or hospitals—and not draw connections to issues of capacity, resources, and disregard for the welfare of incarcerated people that plague the larger criminal justice system. CPS is clearly incapable of addressing the needs of children and their families, so advocates and experts have proposed broader solutions to minimize some of the risks foster care youth face, particularly older children who are aging out of the system. 

Advocates at the Juvenile Law Center and partner organizations promote initiatives like extended foster care and debt-free justice. They argue that if youth are given more time in the foster care system and provided with resources to help with emotional, financial, and academic stability, it could help ease their eventual transition out of the system. Thoughtful implementation, however, is crucial—extended foster care can look dramatically different depending on the state. 

JLC, which assists cities and states seeking to design their own extended care systems, advocates for the adoption of the existing federal option which includes an extension of all foster care services that typically expire at age 18, including independent living services, foster room and board, case and permanency planning, and judicial oversight, to the age of 21 or beyond depending upon the state. JLC also encourages the use of trauma-informed policies that are rooted in the latest adolescent development research.  

The Debt Free Justice movement has largely focused on eliminating the fines and fees that plague youth in juvenile detention, but has also expanded to address the financial burden shouldered by those in the foster care system. Such burdens can strip both children and their families of the economic support needed to establish a stable foundation as they enter young adulthood. Mangold says that the costs and fees in the child welfare system further impoverish families who are trying to reunite with their children. 

Additionally, the child welfare system takes young people’s social security benefits, “[including] disability benefits or survivor benefits.” The end result is that when youth exit care as adults, they’re left to fend for themselves without a bank account or a savings account to help them build stable lives. Meanwhile, child support fees are kept by foster care agencies instead of going toward families trying to prepare or maintain a safe and comfortable home for their children to return to.

“It just further digs a hole for families that are trying, that are vulnerable and that are often on the edge of poverty dealing with housing and employment instability,” Mangold said.


For some advocates, the urgency around reforms like debt justice and extended foster care as well as addressing CPS’ inability to find safe, adequate placements for youth in their care, points toward an altogether different call to action: the abolition of the child welfare system and family policing. In their most recent strategic plan, the Juvenile Law Center outlined their commitment to abolition and other groups have similarly identified the dismantling of the child welfare system as a main goal, particularly due to its role in family separation

Advocates for the disbandment of child welfare harken back to its antebellum roots and how family separation was a linchpin of slavery, origins shared by today’s police systems. Even post-emancipation children’s aid societies established racial disparities that continue to this day. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such charitable groups only served white children even as Black children were excluded from accessing child welfare services and single Black mothers were barred from receiving state aid.

In her April 2022 essay for Mother Jones, scholar Dorothy Roberts outlines how a shift occurred around the mid-20th century, when unexpected consequences swiftly followed the Black freedom struggle to open up access to welfare. As Black families began receiving benefits, the image of welfare recipients began to change from “the worthy white widow to the immoral unwed Black mother.” Policies twisted as part of a backlash against the civil rights movement and Black mothers’ use of public aid. States began to punish poor mothers who didn’t meet “suitable home standards” by taking their children away.

“The central mission of the child welfare system transformed from providing services to intact white families to taking Black children from theirs,” Roberts writes.

Advocates argue that instead of breaking families apart, states should provide resources to help parents raise their children in healthy, safe, and secure environments. The majority of families separated by CPS have been labeled as “neglectful” not because of their unwillingness to care for their children, but because they’re trapped by cycles of poverty and scarcity. Instead, the state can keep homes intact by helping to improve families’ material condition, particularly by providing adequate housing and opportunities to create economic stability. 

Going even further, the vague and wide definitions of what CPS can label “neglect” are targets of a lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania by a group of parents and nonprofit agencies arguing that parents are not given any chance to defend themselves before being named on child abuse registries. Being placed on those registries can stymie their opportunities for employment, volunteering, adoption, or becoming foster parents, making it even harder to create the kind of home CPS might deem “acceptable” and reunite their families. 

The fact that advocates are pressing their cases using these legal strategies, as well as the inclusion of family policing in broader mainstream interrogations of policing, seems to indicate that the way American society views child welfare is perhaps broadening beyond relying on punitive approaches to prioritizing restorative ones. Additionally, the earliest days of the pandemic point to some surprising clues about what abolition of child welfare might mean for families’ practical concerns.

As the country went into lockdown, many feared that as families quarantined together—often under increased psychological and financial pressure—child abuse rates would surge. However, data from New York’s  Administration for Children Services showed that child fatalities decreased by 25% between February and June 2020 compared with the same period in the previous year. Around the same time, city organizations and grassroots groups mobilized to provide food, clothing, childcare needs, and benefits enrollment assistance. The data arguably illustrates how allowing families to remain intact while providing resources might be the winning combination that keeps children safe.

Whether it’s young people living and sleeping in youth jails, CPS offices, conference rooms, or hospitals, across the country child welfare services are showing their unwillingness and incapacity to care for the children seized and placed under their custody. But the system’s failure to find adequate placements is not an aberration, but just one of the many ways it undermines the safety and health of youth and their families.

The disproportionate impact of family policing on Black families—for whom family separation looms as an ever-present punishment for the inability to access services and aid that the state fails to provide—suggests that those most impacted would be better served by abolishing the system entirely. Powerful analysis by advocates on the system’s history and current inefficacy and research on the improved health welfare of families in the earliest days of the pandemic when communities stepped up to provide care and mutual aid as opposed to CPS involvement points towards a way of investing in families that moves beyond the carceral responses that feel safe and familiar but ultimately yield more harm than hope. 

Even without complete abolition, large-scale changes to the system are necessary, if only to best serve those young people currently navigating life inside it. Lubelfeld says that eventually the children under welfare care will eventually grow out of being wards of the state, and their future is also the future of their communities. It’s vital that they feel that their communities care about them—being left to raise themselves with no one to trust or rely on does little to make them or their communities any safer.

“We have to care more about our most marginalized, vulnerable kids. I know teenagers are difficult to deal with in the best of circumstances, [and] these kids have not had the benefits or the privileges of the best of circumstances—but we as a society and a community have to care about them,” Lubelfeld said. “I don’t know the answer to how to make more people care, but we do have to.”

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.