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Are Spanish-Speaking Families Being Properly Accommodated by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services?

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The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) should serve and properly accommodate families who speak diverse languages, but in one recent case, the DCFS failed to do so, according to ProPublica.

After a Cook County Juvenile Court judge awarded guardianship of two Spanish-speaking children to Slovak-speaking foster parents, concerns were raised regarding how Latino and Spanish-speaking families are served throughout Illinois. The father of the two children was arrested by immigration agents and was deported last year to his native country, Guatemala.

As part of an ongoing investigation, ProPublica Illinois delved deeper into the manner in which the DCFS served Spanish-speaking families. They found that the state agency failed to live up a 1977 federal court consent decree called Burgos v. DCFS.

What are the conditions set forth by the court order?

Burgos was first initiated by a 1975 class-action lawsuit filed by several Chicago-area Puerto Ricans, who alleged that they were discriminated against by DCFS. The consent decree was made on January 14, 1977, in which the DCFS agreed to accommodate Spanish-speaking families. This included:

  • Making documents available in Spanish
  • Hiring bilingual employees and/or interpreters
  • Providing documents, forms, and brochures in Spanish
  • Informing Spanish-speaking families of their rights and how to maintain those rights
  • Posting signs in Spanish at DCFS offices
  • Displaying a phone number to speak to a bilingual ombudsperson
  • Requiring that children whose primary language is Spanish be placed in Spanish-speaking foster homes

How the Dept. of Children & Family Services violated the consent decree

According to state officials, the father of the two Spanish-speaking children was reportedly persuaded to waive his rights under the court order requiring that his children be placed in a Spanish-speaking home.

The two children were initially taken into DCFS custody after they were found to have drugs in their system. The children were placed in a Slovak-speaking home, which the DCFS determined was the oldest child's primary language.

The father has been working to regain custody, but has experienced challenges due to a language barrier and continued involvement with the childrens' mother, who struggles with heroin addiction. The father, however, has never previously been accused of abuse or neglect and seeks to have them sent to Guatemala to live with him.

The ProPublica investigation found that since 2005 there have been at least 300 potential Burgos violations by the DCFS. That number could be underestimated since the DCFS has repeatedly failed to properly document the race, ethnicities, and languages of several families.

Civil rights advocates and lawmakers revisit Burgos

This has prompted state lawmakers to urge DCFS to improve the way they interact with and serve Spanish-speaking families. As a result, current acting DCFS Director Marc Smith has vowed to do the following:

  • Hire more bilingual workers
  • Recruit more Spanish-speaking foster families
  • Make technological improvements to help track where Spanish-speaking children are placed

While the agency has already hired 31 additional bilingual employees since last year, it is still shy of the 194 bilingual workers required by state law.

This is only part of a much larger problem. The ProPublica investigation, as well as the recent case involving the two Spanish-speaking children, has prompted civil rights groups, such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, to begin monitoring the DCFS for compliance with the 1977 consent decree.

Over the years, enforcement of the obligations set forth by the consent decree has become lax and almost non-existent. Yet the DCFS claims that it's Burgos compliance rate is roughly 92 percent. This rate doesn't account for cases in which Spanish-speaking parents are persuaded into giving up their rights, however.

That's why if you are experiencing a dispute regarding the custody of your children, it's best to consult with an experienced family law attorney before speaking to any other party. The attorneys at Courtney Clark Law P.C. have nearly 40 years of experience representing Illinois families. Our law office is based in Belleville. To find out how we can help you, contact us online for a free case consultation.

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