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Central IL Rep. wants to ban mechanical restraints, add new DCFS child investigators

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Springfield, IL - The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is facing backlash from the Governor and children's rights advocates after a child was shackled in a transport vehicle Monday. Gov. JB Pritzker says he is furious another child was subject to hard restraints, as DCFS banned the practice last fall.

DCFS Spokesman Jassen Strokosch says the agency has fired the contract employee responsible for the incident. The group has also terminated their contract with the transport company, Jim Stewart Transportation.

Rep. Sue Scherer (D-Decatur) filed a bill in November to make it illegal to use mechanical restraints on children in foster care. That was just days after DCFS officials admitted two teenagers were put in handcuffs and shackled at their ankles during a transport. She says these situations have to stop.

"I was just upset because I thought if my bill had become law before this, maybe this would not have happened," Scherer said. Her bill would only allow DCFS to use soft restraints - such as leather - to hold a child in limited situations.

"It would be for the safety of the child and the driver and the others concerned that they have to be restrained in some way for whatever reason, that would be the only time they would do any sort of shackling at all," explained Scherer.

She says soft restraints could also be used if a psychiatrist recommends it for a child being transported with mental health needs. While DCFS is currently enforcing this rule, Scherer says it is not cemented in a law.

Expanding the candidate field

The downstate Democrat is also trying to help add staff for the department. House Bill 3959 would add criminal justice as an accepted degree for child protective investigator applicants. Currently, DCFS looks for applicants with a bachelor's degree in a human services area such as law enforcement, early childhood development, etc.

"I think everyone would agree your number one choice would be a social worker, but there aren't enough social workers to go around for these jobs or they're available but they don't want to do that job," Scherer added.

Dr. Betsy Goulet runs the Child Advocacy Studies Program - or CAST - at the University of Illinois Springfield. The program has helped over 750 graduates become new investigators over the last four years. Goulet says this bill is great for students interested in investigation and child protection.

"We have seen a wide range of people coming to this work. It's very important that the pool is a little bit broader, that there's more people interested in this because it's so hard," said Goulet. "It's a very complex job."

She hopes DCFS will look to her criminal justice students from the CAST program to fill some of their vacancies.

"These are students who understand mandated reporting," said Goulet. "They understand what an investigation entails, what happens when a child discloses, who usually responds and more important than anything it's all trauma-informed."

Scherer says her mechanical restraints bill should be discussed in a House Adoption and Child Welfare Committee hearing next week. Her investigator certification proposal awaits a second reading on the House floor.

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Mike Miletich

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