What kind of child welfare system leaves foster children in psychiatric facilities longer than they need to be there or lets a child spend the night in a utility closet? The answer is a system that is stretched too thin. With the director of Illinois’ Department of Children and Family Services recently held in contempt in the fourth of a string of cases involving violations of the rights of foster children, it is time to look at what is causing these problems.

Illinois keeps children in foster care longer than any other state in the country, according to calculations we made based on data from the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect. Twenty-six percent of children in the state remain in care four years after being removed — a rate four times higher than for children nationally. In Cook County, 40% of children entering foster care in 2015 were still there at the end of 2019. Even children entering foster care under age 5, where stable family life is most essential to healthy development, are left in limbo for years — 22% are in care for more than four years in Illinois and 38% for Cook County versus only 5% nationally.

Fewer kids leaving the system means fewer open foster homes for those entering. Worse still, kids who stay in care for longer often end up with multiple placements, experiencing more trauma each time they are moved. According to the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being, “Changes in placement were … more common among children with a history of 36 months or more spent continuously in foster care. (They) most typically experienced five placement changes compared to the median of three placements.” As a result, they are more likely to develop the severe mental health and behavioral challenges that leave congregate care as their only viable option.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Adoption and Safe Families Act, or ASFA, of 1997 was created because a bipartisan group of legislators in Congress saw kids languishing in care for years on end and determined that there must be a limit to how long agencies can pursue reunification when there is no imminent likelihood of achieving it. Under ASFA, states are supposed to move to terminate parental rights — making children eligible for adoption — if children have been in care for 15 of the past 22 months.

Many assume that leaving kids in foster care for longer may allow parents more time to rehabilitate and lead to a higher likelihood of reunification. A bill has been introduced in Congress to repeal ASFA, with advocates arguing that parents just need a little more time to safely reunify. In reality, more than 80% of children who will be reunified within four years are reunified within the first 18 months of entering foster care, and 98% are reunified within three years. Indeed, despite keeping children in care for far longer than other states, Illinois’ reunification rate after four years is 15 points lower than the national rate.

Illinois, following federal funding changes, has also made a concerted effort to reduce the number of residential care beds available for foster youth and instead place those kids with families. Unfortunately, congregate care facilities have closed much faster than states have recruited suitable alternatives. In Illinois, about 500 congregate care beds have disappeared in the past five years, with only 30 opening up in therapeutic family foster homes — where foster parents are better trained and prepared to care for kids who have greater behavioral or mental health needs. Without these alternatives, children may move through several or even dozens of homes over the course of their time in the system.

Fixing these problems requires caseworkers, judges, and agency leaders who understand the importance of making timely decisions regarding kids in foster care.

“Children have a very different sense of time than adults,” National Council of Juvenile and Family Court judges declared in guidelines published in 2016. “Short periods of time for adults seem interminable for children, and extended periods of uncertainty exacerbate childhood anxiety.”

Illinois’ children are losing years of their lives to child welfare agencies and courts that cannot or will not make decisions about their futures. These interminable stays in foster care make it all the less likely they will ever be able to experience a loving and secure attachment to adults who are willing and capable of caring for them.