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2 teens in DCFS care were shackled and handcuffed during drive from a youth shelter: ‘Totally unacceptable,’ agency says

Friday, November 08, 2019
Chicago Tribune

Illinois’ child welfare agency is investigating why two teenagers in its custody were handcuffed and shackled at their feet while being driven from one youth shelter to another living arrangement, authorities confirmed Thursday.

The youths, 15 and 17, were driven in separate trips on Oct. 1 by a private contractor, according to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Both were restrained for about 30 miles as they were moved from a shelter in Chicago to a new placement in Palatine.

“The use of restraints in this case was totally unacceptable and against department policy,” spokesman Jassen Strokosch said in a statement. “DCFS is investigating the incident and putting additional policies and procedures in place immediately to ensure youth are never restrained during transport unless it is clinically necessary."

A representative for the company told the Tribune on Thursday that he was recently made aware of the concerns by DCFS.

The Missouri-based company, Jim Stewart Transportation, was started in 2001 and has about 30 drivers who specialize in relocating young adults with behavioral challenges, according to Alan Ifft, director of operations.

When asked about the use of restraints, Ifft said the decision is typically made on a case-by-case basis.

“Most of it is based upon the child’s demeanor at the time of pickup and the people who are working directly with them,” he said. “We rely mostly on the opinions of the people who are working with the children because, quite honestly, we don’t know most of these kids until we show up.”

Ifft declined to comment specifically on the Oct. 1 incidents.

The Cook County Public Guardian’s Office, which is representing the older teenager in child protection court, told a judge about the incident Thursday morning during a hearing and asked DCFS to prepare a report about how it happened.

DCFS caseworker Ketoya Sanders told the judge the teenager waited more than a month before first reporting the incident to her on Wednesday.[

Sanders said staff at the shelter told her the boy, who has a history of running away, was being moved because the shelter was overcrowded, not due to disciplinary problems. The teen, however, said he had gotten into an altercation with staff, Sanders said.

Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert said he was outraged by the situation, calling it a violation of state and constitutional rights to be restrained without cause.

“This is not a penal system,” Golbert said. “The foster care system is different from a penal system. It’s not intended to punish children. Handcuffs and shackles are for adult criminals from whom the public needs to be protected.”

DCFS has worked with the transportation company for several years, according to Strokosch. The company signed a two-year, $240,000 contract with DCFS, beginning in July.

There are some circumstances when restraints might be necessary to keep a foster child safe during transport, Strokosch said, but DCFS will only pursue that if a judge orders it or a clinician makes the recommendation. Strokosch could not say Thursday night if the department tracks the number of times that restraints are used.

State law prohibits minors from being “subjected to mechanical restraints” in any facility licensed by DCFS.

The contract with Jim Stewart calls for “secured transportation for DCFS Youth in Care when it has been clinically determined that transport by standard means ... is unsafe for the youth and/or the transporter due to the youths significant history of elopement, aggression and/or other documented unstable or unsafe behavior.”

Secured transport can be used to move youth between placements, both in and out of state, and to take them to appointments with medical providers.

The contract makes no mention of the use of handcuffs or leg restraints.

DCFS says it has called for “secure transport” about 120 times since 2017. It was not clear Thursday night how many of those trips involved the use of restraints.

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