The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is required to provide services in Spanish to Latino families but routinely fails to do so, a ProPublica investigation has found. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

For almost 50 years, the agency that cares for the most vulnerable children in Illinois has failed to abide fully by a federal court order to provide Spanish-language services when necessary.

It is a fact of life in a nation of immigrants that government, the courts and social services work best when offered in the native tongue of those immigrants.

That is why a judge may require a translator in court for a defendant from, say, Belarus. That is why voting instructions are offered in languages other than English, such as Spanish and Cantonese.

And the higher the stakes, the less our nation should allow an inability to speak or understand English to be a barrier to fair play and justice.

But when it comes to the State of Illinois agency that bears the heavy responsibility of working with children and parents in family crisis, that bit of common sense — work with the families as much as possible in their own language — too often is not practiced, despite a federal court order.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is required to provide services in Spanish to Latino families, as part of a 1977 order called the Burgos consent decree. But as the nonprofit journalism site ProPublica reports, DCFS has failed for years to abide fully by the decree.

Caseworkers who work with Spanish-language clients may not speak Spanish. Children from Spanish-language families are placed in foster homes where nobody speaks Spanish.

ProPublica first reported in 2019 that DCFS had violated the Burgos decree almost 300 times since 2005, and that number likely was an undercount. Then early last year, Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert conducted his own mini-investigation and found that the problem continues.

For 10 months, lawyers from Golbert’s office counted the number of new cases that involved Spanish-speaking families. Then the lawyers checked how many of those families’ case files included a critical document that indicates whether DCFS should be providing the families services in Spanish.

Of the 80 or so cases Golbert’s lawyers identified, as ProPublica recently reported, not one included the so-called language determination form.

Our message today is simple. We know DCFS has a tough job, working to protect and care for the most vulnerable children in the state. And we know state resources are tight. But in a state in which almost 13% of the population speaks Spanish as their primary language, it is obvious that more DCFS caseworkers should speak the language, and the agency should be doing more to hire accordingly.

At the moment, ProPublica reports, DCFS employs just 153 bilingual workers, though under a 2008 state law it should employ 194. Latinos make up about 8% of the 16,000 children in state care. Nobody should feel confident that caseworkers who cannot speak Spanish are fully on top of any case — picking up on signs of neglect or abuse — that involves a family that only speaks Spanish.

If DCFS can’t get there alone — if it continues to fail to meet the benchmarks of the Burgos decree — perhaps it is time for a federal court to appoint an independent monitor.

“When you have an agency with a record of recalcitrance, despite public attention in continuing to neglect its responsibilities, then that is an appropriate time for outside, independent, well-resourced monitoring,” Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told ProPublica. “Otherwise you’re not going to change the culture.”

State law could come to rescue, if only a bit. This month, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law a bill that creates a task force to examine the disparate racial impacts of DCFS policy on the families that enter the child welfare system. As part of that effort, the task force is expected to explore language, cultural and heritage issues.

Also, DCFS created a Burgos workgroup last year that meets twice a month to address compliance with the court, and monthly reports on violations are being produced.

The Latino population in Illinois continues to grow. The need for DCFS to provide services in Spanish will grow even more pressing.

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