By BETH HUNDSDORFER
Capitol News Illinois
Leah is a 13-year-old girl under Department of Children and Family Services care who lives in a psychiatric ward in a Chicago hospital.
Capitol News Illinois is using a pseudonym to protect her identity, but has confirmed she’s been held for months behind locked doors despite a doctor saying she was well enough to leave the hospital and a judge ordering that she should be moved.
On Thursday, Department of Children and Family Services Director Marc Smith received his 10th contempt of court citation for failing to comply with that judge’s order in Leah’s case.
Leah is a typical teen, says a close relative whose identity Capitol News Illinois is not revealing due to the sensitivity of the case.
She’s smart, sassy, has many friends, loves school and reading, and aspires to someday attend Harvard University. The relative would end her phone calls with Leah by saying “I love you,” and Leah would respond “to the moon and back.”
That’s when they could have phone calls. Leah’s access to the phone is limited now.
Leah’s case is complicated. The relative said she came into the care of child protective services in another state when she was 10 years old.
Her mom was at the end of a violent relationship and battling a growing dependence on drugs. Leah’s biological father was in prison serving a lengthy sentence. She stayed with an aunt once, then was in foster care. Another relative obtained guardianship of Leah in 2019, picking her up the day after Christmas and driving her to her new home in Chicago.
It wasn’t a happy arrangement. Three months after coming to Illinois, the guardian dropped her at Lurie Children’s Hospital. When Leah was well enough for discharge, her guardian didn’t come to get her. DCFS was called and assigned to care for her.
Leah moved from a shelter to hospitals and back to shelters. Once, the relative said, she spent the night in a DCFS office. She got depressed, the relative said, and became suicidal.
She ran away into the streets of Chicago one February night. Leah is originally from a small town in the Midwest with a population of about 5,000. She didn’t know anyone in Chicago. It was a cold night.
Leah eventually knocked on a stranger’s door and asked to use the phone to call her mom, the relative said. The next morning, Leah returned to the children’s shelter. When she got back, Leah found out that no one had been looking for her.
In February 2022, Leah was once again hospitalized. Doctors discharged her on March 21, 2022. On April 14, 2022, the court directed Smith to get her out of the hospital and into an appropriate placement within a week.
Still, Leah remained in a locked psychiatric facility. She was there Thursday when Cook County Judge Patrick Murphy found Smith in contempt for the 10th time.
Birthdays, Christmases, Thanksgivings have come and gone. Leah remains separated from her family.
Her mom is in Colorado now. Her dad remains in prison in Kansas. The bright kid who once loved school and reading gets one hour a day of unaccredited classes in the hospital. When she is discharged and can begin school again, she must start over at seventh grade, the relative said.
The relative wasn’t sure of Leah’s psychological diagnosis, wasn’t sure if she had one and wasn’t sure if it was correct. The relative doesn’t know what treatments Leah would have to face once she was released from the hospital.
A news release from the Cook County Public Guardian’s Office, who represents children in state custody in legal matters, stated the court has repeatedly ordered DCFS to provide Leah with consistent, trauma-focused therapy to address a history of sexual abuse and exploitation. DCFS failed to provide the needed treatment, the release stated.
Leah joins nine other children in whose cases Smith is facing contempt charges for not following a judge’s order to place them appropriately. Those include an 8-year-old girl locked in a psychiatric hospital for more than seven months after her discharge, a 13-year-old boy kept in a “temporary” shelter five hours away from the child’s home for more than five months, and a 17-year-old boy placed in a locked psychiatric hospital for more than four months after he was cleared for release.
A 16-year-old girl was in 25 placements in two months, including hospitals, emergency shelters, a shelter in Indiana, and temporary foster homes. Before that, she was in a locked psychiatric hospital for nearly two months after she was medically cleared for release.
An 11-year-old girl was ready for discharge from a locked psychiatric hospital for almost a year, and a 15-year-old girl who needed a specialized foster home was held in a locked psychiatric hospital for months. A 16-year-old boy with low intellectual function and cognitive delays spent more than a year in a “temporary” shelter.
A 14-year-old girl was placed in 21 settings, including DCFS offices, hospital emergency rooms and emergency foster homes, and a locked psychiatric hospital for two months after she was ready for discharge.
In the 10 contempt cases, Murphy fined Smith a $1,000 for every day the children remain in the placements. In all the other cases, the fine has been stayed. In Leah’s case, the fine started Thursday, according the Cook County Public Guardian.
Three of the nine children have been moved and the contempt cases have been purged. As of Friday, Leah remained in the hospital.
Leah’s relative can’t help but wonder what the teenager’s future will be.
There’s a lot stacked against her, but then the relative recalls Leah’s sunny disposition and determination. And the silly children’s song “Lava” the two used to sing together. The song is about a lonely volcano searching for someone to care for him.
In the song, an animated volcano sings: “I have a dream I hope will come true. That you’re here with me and I’m here with you. I wish that the Earth, sea and sky up above will send me someone to lava.”
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government that is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.