Teens handcuffed, shackled en route from youth shelter

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has said that the physical restraining of two teenagers as they were driven from a shelter in Chicago to one in the northwest suburbs was “totally unacceptable.”

The two teenage boys, 15 and 17, were handcuffed and shackled at their ankles Oct. 1 as they were separately driven to a shelter in Palatine, about 30 miles away, DCFS spokesman Jassen Strokosch confirmed.

“DCFS is committed to ensuring every child in our care is treated with the utmost dignity and respect. The use of restraints in this case was totally unacceptable and against department policy,” Strokosch said in a statement. “DCFS is investigating the incident and putting additional policies and procedures in place immediately to ensure youth are never restrained during transport unless it is clinically necessary.”

The youths were restrained and driven by the Jim Stewart Transportation company, whom DCFS contracts for “secured transport” when a case manager feels they cannot shuttle the young people themselves, Strokosch said.

However, the call for secured transport does not necessarily merit the use of restraints, Strokosch said. A DCFS case manager may request secured transport for clinical or safety reasons, and it is usually reserved for when a minor is taken from one locked facility to another.

DCFS has contracted Jim Stewart Transportation for secured transport about 120 times since 2017, Strokosch said. The company and DCFS inked a new two-year deal in July worth about $240,000, he said.

Strokosch declined to comment on the specifics of the Oct. 1 incident, citing department policy regarding privacy.

The Cook County Public Guardian’s office represented the older teenager in a hearing in the Child Protection Division of Cook County Circuit Court last week to demand answers about the Oct. 1 incident and DCFS’ broader use of secured transport, which Public Guardian Charles Golbert says is shrouded in mystery.

“There was absolutely no clinical or safety justification for the restraints,” Golbert said. “These boys are in the foster system, not the penal system … They are here because they come from broken homes and not because they have done anything wrong.”

“DCFS has this big contract for ‘secured transport,’ but we haven’t been able to get an answer as to what that means,” Golbert said. “DCFS admitted that they have called for 120 ‘secured transports,’ but it’s not been revealed what that means or how many of those entail shackles or handcuffs.”

Golbert questioned why the child welfare agency was engaged in such a lucrative partnership with the private transportation company, noting that 11 of the 12 independently contracted drivers are based in Missouri and Arkansas, where DCFS places a significant amount of their out-of-state charges.

“We’ve been opposed for years to DCFS’ over-reliance on out-of-state placements because it’s hard to monitor the children’s conditions,” Golbert said.

Golbert has also filed a case in federal court, which will be heard Thursday. In a letter to Judge Jorge Alonso, he alleges that in addition to being a “profound and gross violation of their civil rights,” DCFS also violated a 28-year-old consent decree when they shackled the two teens.

“There is reason to believe this practice is widespread,” the letter reads.

Representatives for Jim Stewart Transportation could not be reached for comment.