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Heated discussion on DCFS mechanical restraints bill during committee hearing

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DCFS HEARING

Springfield, IL - A proposal to ban the use of mechanical restraints by DCFS employees was met with strong opposition during a committee hearing Tuesday afternoon. The bill's sponsor felt confident about her plan last week, but she feels lawmakers turned on her.

Rep. Sue Scherer (D-Decatur) says she is upset the House Child Welfare and Adoption Committee didn't move to vote on her proposal. Scherer says she is the only member of the House that introduced a plan to ban the use of restraints. An amendment to House Bill 3969 also addresses the use of soft restraints during transportation for children in DCFS care. Representatives from the ACLU and Cook County Public Guardian's Office say they can't support the bill, as it still allows the use of restraints in specific cases.

Advocates sound off

"Our position is that metal restraints should never be used by DCFS when it is arranging for transport for abused, neglected independent children," said Danielle Gomez, Supervising Attorney for the Cook County Public Guardian. Gomez said her office was shocked when they found out one of their clients was one of the two teenagers shackled by DCFS employees in November. She explained that, through a freedom of information request, her office found out at least 28 additional children had been shackled during transport over the last year and a half. Gomez said many of those children were clients of her office.

Nora Collins-Mandeville from the ACLU of Illinois said reform legislation needs to occur this session, but Scherer's bill wouldn't work.

"I want to be clear that we need to be careful about whatever is passed. It's a message as well as establishing a record legislatively," Collins-Mandeville testified. "We would really ask that this is a thoughtful process so we can actually prevent and make sure kids are safe beyond mechanical restraints that are hard and secured."

The ACLU and DCFS are working on a separate plan with Sen. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago), which would ensure no restraints are used "for the purpose of punishment or transporter convenience." SB 2757 also requires a mental health professional ride along with any youth transported if soft restraints are being used. The proposal filed earlier this month would require the Department's written approval prior to the use of restraints, similar to Scherer's proposal. But, Feigenholtz's plan includes a requirement that a copy of the recommendation for restraints be provided to the child's court-appointed attorney and guardian at least three days prior to the use of restraints.

Scherer's concerns

Scherer said she was worried about how the Committee would discuss her bill before the hearing even started. She hoped members would agree to pass the bill out of Committee for a chance to have it on the House floor for a second reading. Scherer promised to bring the proposal back with amendments to address any concerns the group had, but members didn't budge.

"I'm appalled that this bill is even brought forward," said Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago). "You know why? Because as adults we should be able to deal with children because we were once a child. You know how imperfect you were, but someone was patient with you. They did not beat you. They did not shackle you, they did not seclude you."

Several members asked Scherer to pull the bill from the record so they wouldn't have to vote on the proposal, but the sponsor continued to fight for the bill.

"If my bill would have been called two weeks ago, maybe that child last week wouldn't have been shackled," Scherer exclaimed. "But we're gonna hold it off again. And who is going to get shackled next week? If we don't keep this bill alive and at the forefront, then what are going to do?"

"You're still shackling. Why?"

The downstate Democrat mentioned none of the Committee members talked about the restraints publicly until the hearing. She said the discussion wouldn't be happening unless the bill was introduced in the first place. But Rep. Keith Sommer (R-Morton) wanted to know why DCFS is still shackling children, even though it is against their current policy.

"It's pretty basic. I think everyone heard it - you're still shackling. Why," Sommer asked. "How do you defend it? Tell members of the committee and the people of the state of Illinois how you defend it."

"I'm not going to do that," said DCFS Legal Counsel Carol Melton. "I can tell you that when it came to the administration's attention last week, we took immediate action and stopped it - terminated a contract for cause, self-reported the incident - so I'm not going to defend it."

"Can you guarantee me there won't be any children shackled moving forward," asked Sommer.

"I don't know how you expect me to answer that question. I can tell you that our General Counsel is working very closely with the ACLU to make sure that we are complying with the B-H consent decree. And we're making sure that we are acting appropriately and making sure anytime that there's a problem that we take action to address it," Melton explained.

While the Committee decided not to vote on Scherer's proposal, members said a comprehensive plan has to be approved by both chambers before the end of session.

Mike Miletich

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