After a spike in the late 1990s, the number of children under the legal guardianship of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is at its lowest point in 27 years, records show.

As of June 28, there were 16,179 “Youth in Care” of DCFS, according to records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times. Twenty years earlier, that number stood at a staggering 54,739.

In 1990, 23,882 children were under the legal guardianship of the state.

Some theorize that the 1993 murder of 3-year-old Joseph Wallace by his mother Amanda Wallace on the West Side catalyzed the rapid rise in youth being put in care of the state.

Amanda Wallace, who had a documented history of mental illness, hung her son by an electrical cord after DCFS administrators and a Cook County judge said Joseph should be returned to his mother’s care from a foster home.

After the death of Joseph, concerns grew within the legal system and DCFS about the attention given to child abuse cases, which then led to a higher rate of abuse and neglect reports.

“People started reporting, like crazy, any fears. There was over-reporting,” said Heidi Dalenberg, general counsel for the Illinois ACLU and cooperating counsel in a consent decree governing DCFS. There was, she added, “a judiciary and case workers who were scared to death.”

In 1997 — the peak of Illinois’ number of youth in care — new federal legislation put a priority on limiting how long children stayed in foster care.

The Adoptions and Safe Families Act worked to clarify that “the health and safety of children served by child welfare agencies must be their paramount concern” that the state’s aim should be “to move children in foster care more quickly into permanent homes.”

“Youth in Care” of the state means the state is a child’s legal guardian. It does not necessarily mean a child is in foster care; often, a child under legal guardianship of the state will live with a relative, according to a DCFS spokeswoman.

After the Adoptions and Safe Families Act was signed in 1997, the number of children in state guardianship plummeted; by 2005, it was down to 20,490.

It has continued to decline, though at a slower pace — to 17,951 in 2009, and to 16,179 last year.

It’s unclear what has slowed the decline and Beverly Walker, the new DCFS director, declined to be interviewed.

“We have much more work to do to increase the speed with which we find permanency [for children],” Dalenberg said. “I don’t know what number we’re going to end up at — we’d like to see it closer to 12,000, but it’s a big state.”

Like the number of youth in care, the amount of children taken into protective custody every year has remained relatively flat since 2012, records show.

In the 2012 fiscal year, 4,392 children were taken into protective custody. At the end of May, with a month to go in the 2017 fiscal year, DCFS reported 4,053 had been taken into custody.

A DCFS spokeswoman said there are legal processes to determine if taking a child into protective custody is appropriate.

Former DCFS director George Sheldon told the Sun-Times that the nationwide opioid crisis has played a part in the number of kids taken into custody.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Illinois had 1,835 opioid-related deaths in 2015, up nearly 14 percent from two years earlier.

“Early on, it didn’t seem to be affecting Illinois, but border states,” Sheldon told the Sun-Times. “Ultimately, we all knew that it would come into Illinois.”

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Youth in Care of Illinois DCFS by Fiscal Year

  • 2017: 16,179 (as of June 28, 2017)
  • 2016: 16,287
  • 2015: 16,563
  • 2014: 16,940
  • 2013: 17,033
  • 2012: 17,161
  • 2011: 17,746
  • 2010: 17,834
  • 2009: 17,951
  • 2008: 18,238
  • 2007: 18,332
  • 2006: 19,431
  • 2005: 20,490
  • 2004: 21,411
  • 2003: 23,019
  • 2002: 26,167
  • 2001: 30,062
  • 2000: 34,324
  • 1999: 41,550
  • 1998: 49,851
  • 1997: 54,739
  • 1996: 54,104
  • 1995: 51,827
  • 1994: 44,896
  • 1993: 37,617
  • 1992: 33,244
  • 1991: 27,329
  • 1990: 23,882