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2019 Feature, Small Newsroom finalist

Stuck Kids

About the Project

Hundreds of Illinois children were spending so long locked in psychiatric hospitals that they outgrew their clothes, fell far behind in school and forgot what it felt like to be outside. And not one of them was supposed to be there. Their doctors had cleared them to leave – some months earlier – but the state’s Department of Children and Family Services had failed to find anywhere for them to go. The agency disregarded the state law mandating that the children in their care live in the least-restrictive setting. As the children waited, they deteriorated emotionally and behaviorally.

ProPublica Illinois reporter Duaa Eldeib fought for months to uncover and document what was happening, overcoming multiple roadblocks to tell an important, untold story on behalf of families and children whose plight had been ignored.

The state agency stalled her data and document requests for months and when the information did arrive, it came in chunks, with numerous errors and holes, that required her and data reporter Sandhya Kambhampati to repeatedly redo their analyses. She also gained access to confidential juvenile records through trusted sources, as well as reviewing child welfare records, court documents, police reports and medical records.

But Duaa went far beyond the paper trail, putting nearly 1,000 miles on her car driving around the state trying to track down the families of these children. She made multiple visits to their homes, earning the trust of people who were understandably hesitant to talk about this sensitive subject, even attending, with one family’s permission, a wake for a relative.

The initial story reflected the depth of her reporting, weaving together powerful personal narratives with unimpeachable data analysis, even documenting, with the talents of news applications developer David Eads, how many children were being held in psychiatric hospitals beyond medical necessity on any given day. Follow-up articles detailed disturbing allegations of sexual and physical abuse, as well as patient safety violations, at a psychiatric hospital the state relies on to treat hundreds of children in its care.

The first story created impact even before it was published. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services moved one child who had been waiting for more than two months to leave a hospital. Following publication, lawmakers convened a bipartisan legislative hearing to force DCFS officials to explain why they routinely failed to find placements for children in psychiatric hospitals. For the first time in more than two decades, a federal judge appointed a “special master” as an outside mediator to oversee reforms in response to the stories.

The Cook County public guardian filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the children stuck in psychiatric hospitals, calling the practice inhumane and unconstitutional. DCFS’ own Inspector General launched an investigation into children languishing in psychiatric hospitals. Chicago City Council members called for a hearing. In addition, federal authorities moved to pull the psychiatric hospital’s funding. DCFS removed all children in its care from the facility and placed a hold on sending children there.