April 01, 2014

A Different Approach: Illinois Taskforce on Immigrant Children and Families

Ann Park

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

The Illinois Taskforce on Immigrant Children and Families works to improve treatment of immigrant children and families in child welfare cases. Read on to learn about the taskforce’s approach.* 

A Taskforce Forms

At the symposium, Growing Up Undocumented in America, on October 12, 2012, hosted by the Children’s Legal Rights Journal of Loyola University Chicago School of Law, participants discussed whether Illinois needed legislation like California’s SB 1064. A taskforce was created to evaluate the state system to better answer this question.

Evaluation Efforts 

The taskforce focused on what was happening with immigrant children and families who enter the child welfare system. It assessed the strengths and weaknesses in dealing with immigrant families and exchanged information with stakeholders. The taskforce met with the Illinois Department of Children and Families (DCFS) and reached out to attorneys representing children and parents to learn about their experiences. It contacted the Office of the Cook County Public Guardian for statistics and information. It also worked with immigration advocacy centers to identify issues. 

DCFS Policies 

The Illinois DCFS has worked to address challenges immigrants face and ensure parents’ immigration status does not negatively affect permanency. DCFS policies 1) address placement with relatives; 2) instruct caseworkers on identifying an undocumented immigrant child; and 3) reinforce Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) between DCFS and the Mexican consulate. While the policies apply statewide, their implementation has not been evaluated. 

DCFS has an unwritten policy not to inquire about the immigration status of the child or parent. This ensures the status does not affect services the child receives or create more issues for the child and parent. As a result, DCFS lacks consistent data on immigrant families. However, DCFS conducts internal reviews every six months and flags parents’ immigration status when it has been raised. 

Timeframe Restrictions 

Detaining or deporting parents can add time to the reunification process. ASFA lacks language addressing how a parent’s detainment or country of residence should affect reunification or ASFA timeframes. In Cook County, ASFA timeframes have not been raised as a concern affecting immigrant parents. There have been few reports of cases in which parents are deported or detained, and the parent’s detention or deportation status is not usually the reason children are not sent home. 

Language Accommodations 

In Illinois, there is a preference for placing a Spanish-speaking child in Spanish-speaking home and assigning the parent a Spanish-speaking caseworker. 

Children Eligible for SIJS

Illinois has had a few cases involving children eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS).  Once DCFS discovers an undocumented child, a DCFS officer fills out an application for SIJS. Because of the policy of not asking about immigration status of the child, it is assumed many children eligible for SIJS are not captured in the system. DCFS generally identifies SIJS for teenagers when they struggle applying for a driver’s license or college because they lack key documentation. More training for stakeholders on SIJS may help.

Why No Legislation?

Unlike California, the Illinois taskforce decided not to pursue separate legislation. In Illinois, it has been difficult to identify ongoing issues related problems facing immigrant families and children in the child welfare system. Also, good policies are in place and DCFS is committed to enforcing them for the interest of immigrant children and parents. Therefore, the benefit of raising this to the legislature is uncertain. 

Does Your State Need a Taskforce?

In your state, how does immigration status of a child or family play a role in dependency proceedings? Creating a taskforce to closely assess the system is key to recognizing immigrant children and families and finding gaps. No matter where your state stands, it is essential to raise awareness and provide training for judges, attorneys, and caseworkers to create stable, long-term improvements.  


* Information provided by Anita Weinberg, clinical professor and director of ChildLaw Policy Institute and Alexandra Fung, Salisbury clinical teaching fellow, at the Civitas ChildLaw Center, University of Chicago School of Law.