For generations, Illinois' child welfare agency has failed to adequately serve Spanish-speaking families

For generations, Illinois' child welfare agency has failed to adequately serve Spanish-speaking families

  • 0
DSCF's Failures to Serve Spanish-Speaking People

Jose Zapata fought for custody of his daughters after they were placed in a foster home where Spanish was not spoken. More than six years later, they came home to him. He said they now speak Spanish fluently, visit their grandparents in Mexico each summer and have embraced their heritage. (Sebastián Hidalgo for ProPublica Illinois)

When his son was born in 2014, Jorge Matias held the infant in the hospital and sang him the lullabies he had learned as a child in Guatemala. He teased the boy’s mother that he would raise their son to speak Spanish, and one day the two of them would talk in secret around her.

But the boy was born with heroin in his system and, when it cleared from his body, Illinois child welfare officials placed him in a foster home. To get his son back, Matias had to complete a long list of requirements, including ending his relationship with the boy’s mother, a heroin addict.

Matias visited the boy at his caseworker’s office, changed diapers and learned to prepare a bottle. He documented his son’s growth with photos and videos on his cellphone.

Shortly before the boy turned 1, at a visit with his father at a library, his foster mother sitting nearby, he spoke what was, for Matias, his child’s first word. Not in Spanish. Or in English. But in Slovak. Mamka. Mommy.

In that moment, Matias realized his son was being raised speaking a language he did not understand. He feared what would happen if it took longer to get him back.

Matias sought out the Eastern European men he worked with on carpentry jobs and learned to use language apps on his phone for useful words and phrases. Slowly, he picked up a handful of Slovak words: Blanket. Bottle. Up. Down. Tomatoes. Chicken.

But he couldn’t keep up. By the time the boy turned 2, in the summer of 2016, Matias told a therapist during a required session that he was worried about his growing inability to communicate with his son.

Six months later, his son began to scream when Matias picked him up for visits. He cried out for his foster father. “Ocko,” he called him, the Slovak word for daddy.

A History of Falling Short

For more than 40 years, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has been under a federal court order to place the children of Spanish-speaking, Latino parents in foster homes where that language is spoken.

This order, known as the Burgos consent decree, has the power to benefit thousands of families in a state with one of the country’s largest Spanish-speaking populations. In fact, the consent decree often is cited as a national model, most recently in a study of how child welfare agencies across the U.S. serve immigrant families, an issue that’s only become more critical amid the heightened political climate around immigration.

But a ProPublica Illinois investigation has found that DCFS has repeatedly failed in its obligations to help Spanish-speaking families. The agency continues to place children in homes where their parents’ language isn’t spoken and to assign caseworkers who don’t speak Spanish to parents who aren’t proficient in English. Hundreds of families across generations have been affected, beginning with the family for whom the consent decree is named and continuing to this day, with the story of Matias’ children, who were placed in a foster home where neither English nor Spanish was spoken.

In some cases, the language gap has caused workers to miss key information in investigations of abuse and neglect, records show, contributing to the injuries and deaths of children in state care. The shortcomings extend to the private agencies that work with these families and those charged with overseeing enforcement of the court order.

“You’re destroying families,” said Layla Suleiman Gonzalez, a former federal court monitor of the consent decree who now teaches at Loyola University Chicago. “Once you take away a child’s language, you’re taking his or her identity, his connection to the family and the community and the culture.”

The agency’s records show nearly 300 possible Burgos violations since 2005. That number is almost certainly an undercount because basic information about a case, including race, ethnicity and language preferences, frequently has been unreliable and, in some instances, was deliberately falsified by staffers.

DCFS cannot provide a consistent count of children of Spanish-speaking parents who are currently in foster homes where Spanish is not spoken. The agency initially provided data that showed more than 50 children in recent placements that could violate the consent decree. DCFS spokesman Jassen Strokosch later said there were only two violations. In May, he said the agency performed a case-by-case review and reported that the correct figure was fewer than 25.

Finally, this week, Strokosch acknowledged “difficulties providing accurate numbers.” He added that now, “from top to bottom, we’re looking at better ways to do that reporting.”

Some placements may appear to violate Burgos but don’t because the agency might have prioritized other factors, such as the medical needs of the child, above language, he said. Other placements may violate agency policy but not Burgos, because the consent decree covers families in the Chicago area but DCFS policy applies the order statewide.

Still, Strokosch said, complying with Burgos and ensuring that Spanish-speaking families across Illinois receive services in their own language is a priority of DCFS acting director Marc Smith, who was appointed to the position in April by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Smith is the agency’s 13th leader in the last decade.

“DCFS is committed to being fully responsive to the needs of the children and families we serve, providing care and services that accounts for differences in culture, language, and background,” Strokosch said.

For an agency that has long struggled with high-profile child deaths and crushing caseloads, it’s easy to see how Burgos has been ignored, said Rubén Castillo, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois and the first federal court monitor on the consent decree. DCFS, he said, has been so overwhelmed by responding to crises that it has not prioritized issues specific to Latinos, who make up just 8% of the more than 16,000 children in state care.

“I have yet to see any big push on the part of any of the directors of DCFS to either hire Hispanic workers or to seek to have more Hispanic foster families,” Castillo said. “I think there's been too many transitions, too many new priorities, too many emergency cases, too many kids dying in bad situations.”

For years, no organization outside DCFS has been able to examine if it complies with the court decree.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a national civil rights group that represents families in the Burgos litigation, said the state has repeatedly refused to provide information that would help it monitor the consent decree. MALDEF leaders, in interviews and in a written statement, said they are now considering their legal options but worry the protections granted to families under the consent decree could be eliminated if they take DCFS back to court.

The preservation of families stands as a guiding principle in child welfare. But violating parents’ Burgos rights can delay reunification, a process that may already take years. Children who are cut off from their birth parents may end up with anglicized names, different religious practices or immersed in a foreign culture.


Unable to see his children in person, Jorge Matias communicates with them via Skype and Facebook. He also calls into court hearings and DCFS meetings.(Daniele Volpe for ProPublica Illinois)

In some cases, prolonged separations make it almost impossible to determine what’s best for these children: returning them to birth parents they may barely know or keeping them with foster parents who, perhaps, should never have had them for so long but who have watched them grow and loved them as their own.

A Promise of Reform

Leopoldo and Iris Burgos moved to Chicago from Puerto Rico in 1970 and spoke only Spanish. In March 1972, DCFS investigators took custody of two of their children, Olga and Henry. Nearly half a century later, the specific allegation against the parents is unclear. News reports from the late 1980s say the children were found filthy and pecked by chickens the family kept in their apartment.

Caseworkers from a private agency contracted by DCFS placed Olga, who was around 3 at the time, and Henry, then around 6, in separate foster homes where only English was spoken.

Four social workers would handle the case over the next three years. None spoke Spanish.

The language barriers delayed even the simplest interactions. In a sworn affidavit, Iris Burgos said she didn’t see her daughter for seven months “because I could not communicate with anyone” from the agency.

All notices sent to the family were in English. The Burgos’ oldest daughter, about 11 at the time, often served as an interpreter. It’s unclear why she or other siblings weren’t taken into custody.

A bilingual caseworker wasn’t assigned until three years after the family entered the child welfare system. “For the first time,” Iris Burgos said in the affidavit, “we now know what is expected of us and how we can plan a program which will hopefully lead to the eventual return of our children.”

What happened to the Burgos family was standard for the era. A DCFS study from 1974 found that 80% of children of Latino parents taken into state care were placed in non-Latino foster homes. Some 67% of cases involving Spanish-speaking parents were handled by caseworkers who didn’t speak the language.

In November 1975, the nonprofit Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago filed a class-action civil rights lawsuit against DCFS and two of its vendors arguing systematic discrimination against Spanish-speaking Latino families.

Less than two years later, with the lawsuit still pending, DCFS agreed to reforms. Chief among them was a mandate to place children of Spanish-speaking families in foster homes where their language would be preserved. If an appropriate home couldn’t be found within two months, the state needed to keep a record of every effort made to find one.

The consent decree covered Spanish-speaking families in Chicago and its suburbs whose children were taken into DCFS custody. The agency later extended its policies statewide and to families that had been investigated for abuse or neglect but whose children hadn’t been removed from their home.

DCFS also agreed to increase the number of Spanish-language foster homes, hire more bilingual staff and translate case documents. And it promised to maintain an accurate count of Latino families for whom Spanish was the primary language, information essential to track compliance.

It was an ambitious goal, one that DCFS struggled to meet from the beginning.

Waiving His Rights


Jorge Matias left Guatemala in 2003, when relatives living in Chicago came to visit the small town where he had grown up with nine brothers and sisters. He was a teenager at the time who, after finishing high school, worked digging irrigation ditches on a banana plantation. His relatives’ return trek to the U.S. presented an opportunity to pursue a better life.

As Matias and a relative crossed the border on foot near El Paso, they were apprehended by immigration agents. But they were quickly released with a warning to expect a notice in the mail to appear in immigration court.

Matias, now 34, didn’t think much of the encounter as he made his way to Chicago. He moved into an apartment near Humboldt Park, on the city’s Near West Side, with his father, who had immigrated years earlier. Within a few years, Matias was earning as much as $40,000 a year. “I started all the way at the bottom,” he said, “but when I learned carpentry, I was able to make that money.” Every few weeks, he wired money back home to his mother.

When his father returned to Guatemala, Matias stayed behind. He liked his life in Humboldt Park, where he could take walks through the neighborhood’s namesake park and hear people speaking Spanish. His routine included taking the bus to evening English classes on the city’s North Side. He would study English for years and come to comprehend it, though it would remain difficult for other people to understand him.

One day in 2012, Matias was on the bus on the way to class when he noticed Heather Penar. He liked her smile and made small talk. She responded, friendly and open. “She was someone I could practice my English with,” Matias recalled. “She understood me.” And Penar, too, was drawn to him. In a recent interview, she said she’d never felt “so safe and warm and secure” with anybody before Matias.

They dated casually at first, getting takeout from Thai and Mexican restaurants and heading to the park to talk.

Matias asked her to move in with him after he learned she was pregnant. They talked about getting married and moving to suburban Oak Park. But her addiction to heroin and Xanax, she said, derailed their plans.

Penar, who has been convicted of shoplifting and drug possession, said she hid her addiction from Matias until he found her passed out one day on the bathroom floor. He said he thought about leaving her but wanted to help her get clean. He took her to a clinic, where she was given methadone.

Penar gave birth in the summer of 2013 to a boy who had been exposed to drugs. Matias said he visited the boy for weeks at the hospital until a paternity test showed he was not the father, and the boy was placed in a foster home.

The following summer, Penar gave birth to another drug-exposed son. A DNA test confirming that Matias was the father wouldn’t be given until after the boy was placed with the Slovak foster parents, Jana and Peter Palenik.

Children's Home & Aid, the nonprofit child welfare organization that had the case on a contract with DCFS, has declined to comment for this story. The Paleniks declined repeated interview requests.

DCFS said state law prohibits it from discussing individual cases. In April, a Cook County Juvenile Court judge issued an order prohibiting ProPublica Illinois from publishing the names or images of the children, citing privacy issues.

A supervisor from Children’s Home & Aid later told DCFS that one reason the boy wasn’t placed in a home where Spanish was spoken was the delay in determining paternity, according to case notes. That delay, the supervisor said, was also a factor in why the Paleniks weren’t told what language to speak to the infant.

After his son had been with the Paleniks for about six weeks, DCFS told Matias he could request a home where Spanish was spoken. Matias said he had relatives who would take his son, although he was happy with the care the Paleniks provided and didn’t see the need to move him, records show.


Matias, who thought he would get his son back in a few months, said he couldn’t imagine this decision would have long-term effects. At the time, Matias thought the Paleniks spoke English at home. He didn’t know they were from Slovakia until months after his son had been placed there. The Paleniks later told DCFS they spoke only Slovak at home.

The day after the meeting with DCFS, Matias told an aide that he didn’t “consider himself to be fluent in English,” according to the case file. Then his caseworker and a bilingual colleague asked Matias whether he wanted services in English or Spanish. If he chose Spanish, the caseworker told him, she would no longer be on the case. If he chose English, his caseworker said, “she would find Spanish services for the things he is required to do” to get custody.

Matias chose English. By doing so, the supervisor from Children’s Home & Aid later told DCFS, Matias agreed to relinquish his Burgos rights.

Later, Matias told DCFS workers he was told he could bring his son home faster by choosing English, according to the case file.

A Lack of Oversight

In the years after the Burgos consent decree was signed, lawyers and court-appointed monitors repeatedly found that DCFS had mishandled waivers or coerced parents into giving up their Burgos rights.

In 1979, a little over two years after the decree went into effect, the Legal Assistance Foundation took DCFS back to court, in part because DCFS claimed 113 Spanish-speaking clients had waived their rights though it could provide copies of only 13 waivers. Some had been signed by children.

The issue came up again in 1991. In his first report on DCFS compliance, Castillo, the first court-appointed monitor, described cases in which workers would “essentially coerce families to execute Burgos waivers” by telling them they wouldn’t be reunited with their children. He said the agency’s misuse of waivers could “swallow up the entire purpose” of the court order.

As a result, DCFS agreed to stop using the waivers, though a language determination form has effectively replaced them. Today, parents whose primary language is Spanish waive their rights by saying they prefer to receive services in English on the forms. Strokosch said DCFS does not consider the forms waivers and said any attempt to “influence a parent’s selection of a preferred language with the promise of faster services would be totally unacceptable and immediately investigated.”

Other problems periodically arose, including not translating records and using children as interpreters. In one case, described in a 2008 report from DCFS’ inspector general, a supervisor persuaded an immigrant mother to sign a document giving up guardianship of her baby. The document was in English, which she could not read.

DCFS also continues to assign caseworkers who don’t speak Spanish to Latino families. Agency records of active cases involving Spanish-speaking families as of January 2019 showed more than 100 Spanish-speaking families were being served by caseworkers who cannot speak Spanish. It’s unclear whether they used interpreters. DCFS said it reviewed its records and found that many caseworkers were wrongly labeled as not speaking Spanish when, in fact, they do.

Inaccurate coding and data collection has been a persistent problem at the agency. A 1985 outside study found DCFS did not properly identify whether families were Hispanic. A 1997 monitoring report found inaccurate or inconsistent data had led to a likely undercount of families who preferred services in Spanish. A 2017 agency video celebrating the consent decree’s 40th anniversary features DCFS’ in-house Burgos coordinator explaining how “today we still have an issue on coding the families correctly in terms of not only their ethnicity but the language that they use, if they need an interpreter, if it's a Burgos-class family.”

20190620-illinois-dcfs-burgos-matias-ice-document-full-shadow2 (1).jpg

Matias’ son, for instance, is listed as white and English-speaking in the agency’s case file. DCFS records show that the agency has particularly struggled to track language preferences for families like his, where the father speaks Spanish and the mother English. Burgos requirements apply even if just one parent prefers Spanish.

Caseworkers also have intentionally misclassified families. In a 2009 review, DCFS’ in-house Burgos coordinator, Lourdes Rodriguez, found that staff in a Chicago-area office labeled families as white and English-speaking to reduce caseload numbers and bilingual staffing requirements. “I do not have enough bilingual investigators and what am I to do, management knows that we are violating the Burgos Consent Decree, but I have to assign the cases anyway to whom I have available,” a case supervisor said at the time, according to the review.

Strokosch said the agency is “making improvements to the way Burgos consent decree compliance is tracked at DCFS and aims to be fully transparent with stakeholders and the public as we move forward.”

MALDEF took over the job of representing families in the Burgos litigation in 1996. In a recent interview, Nina Perales, MALDEF’s vice president of litigation, said that, from the start, it was a struggle to get information that would allow it to monitor compliance. She said MALDEF lawyers wrote a number of letters over several years asking the Illinois attorney general’s office, which represents DCFS in the Burgos litigation, for monitoring reports. But the information was either incomplete or not provided. Their last communication was in 2012; then, according to Perales, the attorney general’s office said it was not required to provide those reports and that MALDEF would have to discover Burgos violations on its own.

“The agency shut the door,” she said. “They were not going to provide any more information. They were not going to cooperate with us on enforcement.”

The attorney general’s office disagreed with Perales’ characterization and said the “consent decree directs the plaintiffs to work with DCFS to ensure the state is in compliance with the decree, and the Attorney General’s office will continue to be willing to meet with the plaintiffs to help facilitate that process.”

Since 2012, MALDEF attorneys have met with community organizations and others in “a continuing investigation of Burgos compliance” and researched strategies to ensure Spanish-speaking families in Illinois are served, Perales said. But proving discrimination under federal civil rights law has become more difficult since the Burgos litigation was first filed; plaintiffs now have to show intent, not just the effects of discrimination. Returning to court, Perales said, could unravel the consent decree and undermine its protections.

“The issue,” she said, “is as pressing if not more today than it was in the 1970s.”

A New Generation of Burgos Violations

A generation after the Burgos lawsuit was filed, another Spanish-speaking father went to court to fight for children who had been placed in a home where only English was spoken.

DCFS took custody of Jose Zapata’s first daughter in 1997, when she was 6 months old, after police in west suburban Elgin said they observed the baby’s mother handling her roughly. At the time, Zapata and the mother were separated, though she was pregnant with their second daughter.

Both daughters would eventually be placed in the foster home of an English-speaking couple. Zapata didn’t speak English or have a lawyer — he wouldn’t be appointed one for nearly a year — but he set about seeking custody of his daughters.


From the start, language complicated his efforts. DCFS did not assign a bilingual caseworker for about a year. Interpreters weren’t always provided. A psychological assessment found Zapata lacked the intellectual capacity to care for the girls; the assessment was administered in English. When Zapata was tested again in Spanish, court records show, his scores improved.

Zapata’s status as an undocumented immigrant also counted against him. At court hearings, a caseworker and an attorney hired by the foster parents said it showed his “disregard” for the law.

As the case continued, Zapata married another woman and had a son. But he said he spent so much time driving to visits, therapy, parenting classes, drug counseling and other requirements that he couldn’t support his family. “They kept me busy all day for years,” said Zapata, who worked weekends and nights at an aunt’s grocery store.

Relatives gave the family money for food, formula and diapers. His in-laws moved in to help pay the bills.

All the while, the relationship between Zapata and the foster family deteriorated, court records show. The foster parents baptized his daughters in their Protestant church without his knowledge. If he arrived a few minutes late to his youngest daughter’s therapy, held two hours away at the foster parents’ home, they wouldn’t let him in.

The foster parents said they doubted Zapata’s ability to care for the girls. “We could accept the return of the children to their father if objective evidence were provided that he could indeed parent these children,” they wrote. “After two years we have grown to love these children and just want to ensure that they will have the opportunity to grow up to become beautiful and productive members of our society.”

The case took a turn in Zapata’s favor when, after two years, he reached out to the Mexican Consulate in Chicago. Salvador Cicero, an attorney there at the time, remembers the look of defeat on Zapata’s face when they met. “Everybody tells me I have to sign my children over,” he told Cicero.

The consulate found him attorneys, got the attention of reporters on both sides of the border and developed a relationship with DCFS leadership. Agency officials eventually conducted their own investigation and found that Zapata’s Burgos rights had been violated.

As a result of the case, DCFS and the Mexican Consulate signed an agreement in 2001 that requires the agency to inform Mexican parents that they can ask for their consulate to be notified if their children are taken into custody.

Finally, in 2004, more than six years after his daughters were taken into custody, Zapata brought them home. But no one knew how the girls, who couldn’t speak Spanish, would adapt.

Progress and Setbacks

Several days a week, Matias left work early and arrived late, cutting into his pay, to make it to visits, therapy, classes and random drug tests in his quest to gain custody of his son.


Jorge Matias says he is adjusting to life in Guatemala, the country he left as a teenager in 2003. He now lives with relatives in a house built with the money he earned in Chicago and sent to his mother. (Daniele Volpe for ProPublica Illinois)

His caseworker reminded him that he would need to prove he was “financially capable” of meeting his son’s needs. He signed a lease on a two-bedroom apartment with the understanding that DCFS would help him cover the deposit, but he didn’t get the assistance because his son’s return home was not imminent.

When Matias was approved for unsupervised visits, he was too embarrassed to have the visits take place in his sparsely furnished apartment. He got permission to meet his son in the home of an aunt and uncle who lived nearby.

Children’s Home & Aid staff visited their apartment and spoke with his aunt in the fall of 2015, when the boy was 1, records show. But it’s unclear if she or any of Matias’ other relatives were considered as potential foster families; DCFS typically encourages placements with relatives before strangers. Agency records say no relatives “were able to care for him.”

Matias said he suggested the aunt and uncle, in addition to another set of relatives. Both sets of relatives told ProPublica Illinois they would have been happy to take in their nephew’s son. Such an arrangement would have made it “easier to stay connected to my son,” Matias said. And they would have raised the boy speaking Spanish.

Case notes indicate that, in late 2015, Matias’ caseworker told him it was time to begin overnight visits. When he expressed anxiety about having sole responsibility for his son overnight, the Paleniks invited him to spend the night at their home so he could learn his son’s routine.

Then Matias’ caseworker discovered he had been seeing the boy’s mother. The progress he had made on getting back his son came to a halt. His caseworker worried about his ability to protect the boy from Penar’s substance abuse. When she relapsed, Penar would disappear for months at a time.

Matias, who has never been accused of abuse or neglect, said he tried to cut ties with her. He changed his cellphone number and dated another woman. But he said it was hard to say no when Penar asked for money for methadone or for a ride to visit her two daughters from prior relationships who lived with relatives in the suburbs. Even now, after all that’s happened, Matias says he still loves her.

Soon after it was discovered that Matias was still seeing Penar, he asked for a caseworker who spoke Spanish. The agency agreed. Matias said his original caseworker didn’t seem to understand his accented English and often asked him to repeat himself. Despite all the classes he’d taken, Matias could never express himself the way he wanted in English. And he said he didn’t think the caseworker took his concerns seriously.

It’s unclear why Matias’ request didn’t trigger Burgos protections, or if Children’s Home & Aid or DCFS considered moving his son to a foster home where Spanish was spoken.

As the months passed, the Paleniks grew attached to the boy. And he grew attached to them. The Paleniks live in a single-story, brick home on a tree-lined street in a southwest suburb. Some of the neighbors are, like them, Eastern European immigrants. Their children have grown up together, speaking Slovak and Polish.

Two neighbors described the Paleniks as good parents and said they have watched them teach the boy to ride a bicycle and take him to a nearby park. The Paleniks, who are from the northern part of Slovakia near the border with Poland, took the boy there to see relatives, records show.

Not long after the boy turned 2, DCFS approved overnight visits. But the boy cried when Matias came to pick him up. Matias called his new caseworker to say he didn’t think his son liked him.

The Paleniks also complained of changes to the boy’s behavior. “We have to get up several times every night to calm and reassure him,” they wrote in a December 2016 email included in the case file. “It is steadily getting worse, and we are worried what may happen next.”

The agency ended the overnight visits and Jana Palenik reported that the boy’s behavior improved.

After that, Children’s Home & Aid sent Matias to child-parent psychotherapy designed to help him bond with his son. But Jana Palenik sat in on the sessions. She needed to be there, the therapist wrote, because the boy spoke mostly Slovak.

There is no indication that anybody from Children’s Home & Aid or DCFS considered if the father and son’s inability to speak the same language contributed to their struggle to bond.

Then, in September 2017, the case reached a tipping point. Penar gave birth to Matias’ second child. The baby girl, who also was born with heroin in her system, was placed with the Paleniks. They started asking about adoption, saying their trust in Matias was “completely broken due to him lying about his relationship with Heather,” according to case notes.

By early 2018, the agency recommended terminating Matias’ parental rights and awarding guardianship to the Paleniks. Workers cited Matias’ continued contact with Penar and his inability, despite interventions, to bond with his son.

Lives at Stake

DCFS is charged with protecting children in its care. But the agency’s shortcomings serving Spanish-speaking families has contributed to failures to investigate cases in which children ended up being hurt and even killed, according to records.

ProPublica Illinois reviewed annual reports since 2005 from the agency’s inspector general’s office, which examines child deaths and other major cases of abuse or neglect when the family has had contact with DCFS within the previous 12 months. The review found more than a half-dozen cases where language barriers contributed to a flawed investigation, including at least three that ended in a child’s death.

One case involved a 6-month-old boy who died in a 2005 trailer fire in western Illinois. A DCFS investigator had previously visited the home with an interpreter and noted potentially hazardous space heaters. The investigator relied on the interpreter’s opinion that the space heaters were safe. Nobody warned the family about the risk, the father later told the Belleville News-Democrat.

“If they would have told us it was bad,” he said, “we would have gotten rid of them.”

In response, the inspector general recommended DCFS hire a Spanish-speaking worker for the region around Belleville. DCFS agreed, saying at the time that it actively pursues hiring Spanish-speaking staff for each region.

In another case, a DCFS worker who did not speak Spanish relied on a number of interpreters, including relatives, while investigating the abuse of an 8-month-old boy in 2004 in Aurora, a heavily Latino suburb west of Chicago. DCFS closed its investigation of the case, but the baby died a few days later after being shaken. His father was convicted of murder. The inspector general’s office told DCFS it needed more bilingual workers in areas with growing Spanish-speaking populations.

In yet another case, no Spanish-speaking hotline operators were available in 2010 to take a call reporting suspected abuse of a 1-year-old girl. By the time the caller finally got through two days later and then, later still, an investigator checked in on her, the bruises had faded.

The girl died a few days later of suffocation and blunt force trauma. Her mother was later convicted of aggravated battery of a child. After the inspector general’s report on the death came out in 2012, Rodriguez, the agency’s Burgos in-house coordinator, began looking into staffing at the hotline call center. DCFS in 2016 opened a second call center staffed with more bilingual operators, including one Spanish speaker per shift.

Rodriguez also asked to be notified of deaths of Latino children to determine if language barriers somehow contributed, according to a 2015 memo. The agency did not provide this notification. Strokosch, the DCFS spokesman, said Rodriguez could investigate those cases without any special notification.

“Lourdes’ opinion that she needs to have that notification is her own opinion. Every child death is investigated, whether it’s Burgos or not,” he said. “If language was a barrier in those cases, we would expect to see that in the findings.”

Thousands of DCFS investigations each year list Spanish as families’ preferred language, records show. Agency policy calls for such cases to be handled by a bilingual investigator, and only if one is not available should an interpreter be used. Relatives, who might be biased, should be avoided as interpreters, according to policy.

But a February staffing report found the pace of hiring Latino and bilingual workers hasn’t kept up with the state’s growing Latino population and an increasing number of investigations requiring Spanish. In fact, DCFS last year reported fewer bilingual employees than it did a decade ago.

The agency also falls short of a state law mandating more bilingual staff at agencies where public services are most used. The law requires 194 bilingual frontline workers at DCFS; last year the agency reported 156.

The lack of bilingual workers also has jeopardized other investigations. In one case, cited in the inspector general’s 2011 report, three siblings denied they were abused by their mother when a maternal aunt was used as an interpreter. Only after a bilingual worker interviewed one of the children did he admit they had been physically and sexually abused. According to the inspector general’s report, he said he had been “unwilling to discuss the subject in the presence of his aunt.”

The investigator also failed to translate documents from the family’s home country, including a doctor’s assessment that the children were “in danger of being seriously injured or killed if left in the mother’s custody.” DCFS suspended the investigator and supervisor on the case, according to the inspector general’s report.

Many workers rely on an agency language line for interpretation. More than 2,000 calls were made to the language line requesting Spanish interpreters from June 2017 through May 2018, records show. The average call lasted 15 minutes. Dozens exceeded an hour.

Rodriguez has documented significant problems with the language line. Workers, according to a 2012 memo, worried they “may be putting children at risk” and “their licenses in jeopardy” by using it. Interpreters sometimes provided a five-word summary of 10-minute conversations. Parents said they did not always understand the interpretations.

DCFS did not seek changes in response to Rodriguez’s concerns. Strokosch said he cannot comment on the quality of translations in 2012, but he said the agency is confident in the language line today.

An Arrest

On Aug. 14, 2018, Matias woke up before dawn, nervous, excited and, for the first time in years, hopeful. He was scheduled to meet with a new caseworker, this time one who worked directly for DCFS.

Five months earlier, his public defender had filed a complaint with the agency’s inspector general alleging that Children’s Home & Aid workers had bullied Matias, made disparaging comments about undocumented immigrants and refused to talk to him about the case in his attorney’s presence.

The inspector general opened an investigation and, last July, issued an interim report that indicated serious bias against Matias and an unnecessary delay in finding a permanent home for his children. The inspector general recommended that DCFS conduct its own review and decide if Children’s Home & Aid should be removed from the case. DCFS took over the case and opened an internal investigation into whether Matias’ Burgos rights had been violated.

That August day, as Matias drove toward the DCFS offices for his first meeting with the new caseworker, all he could think about was making a good impression. But just a few blocks from his apartment, Matias was pulled over by an unmarked car with flashing lights. It was U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

An agent ran his fingerprints and discovered a deportation order tied to Matias’ failure to appear at an immigration hearing scheduled after he had been caught crossing the border more than a decade earlier. An ICE spokeswoman said agents had been outside his apartment building looking for someone else; they didn’t target Matias, who had no criminal record.

Unlike the political climate two decades ago, when authorities overlooked Zapata’s immigration status, under the Trump administration nearly everyone who is undocumented is a priority for deportation, regardless of criminal record or familial ties. In November, three months after his arrest, Matias was sent back to Guatemala.

The Fundamental Dilemma

In February, Acting DCFS Inspector General Meryl Paniak issued a report that found Matias’ parental rights were violated. His case, she wrote, was perhaps worse than that of the original Burgos family.

The confidential report emphasized that the consent decree “is not a mere formality” but “an expression of the need to respect ties to families of origin, to facilitate return home.” Paniak wrote that “placing any child in a home from birth where they are not taught any language by which they can communicate with their family of origin violates the basic precept of child welfare.”

The way Children’s Home & Aid asked Matias whether he preferred services in English or Spanish encouraged him to waive his Burgos rights, the inspector general found. The report pointed out that Matias had initially asked for services in Spanish for the boy born in 2013, before learning he was not the father. “There was no reason to ask him again,” Paniak wrote.

The report revealed that Children’s Home & Aid determined Matias was an unfit parent based on unsupported assumptions, including describing him as “mentally ill or impaired” because he didn’t make enough progress toward getting his children back.

The inspector general also found that Children’s Home & Aid conducted excessive drug testing without cause. Matias had not been suspected of using drugs and, records show, never tested positive.

The inspector general recommended that Children’s Home & Aid reimburse DCFS for the costs of the drug testing and present a plan to address the “pattern of biased decision-making that pervaded in this case.”

DCFS said it has agreed to the recommendations. A Children’s Home & Aid official said the organization responded to the report and submitted a proposed plan but wouldn’t comment further.

In her report, the inspector general highlights the dilemma in deciding what’s best for Matias’ children: “It is not clear whether, after four years with one foster family and after [his daughter] was also placed with the Paleniks, what the best interests of the children are at this point in time,” she wrote. “It would be difficult to remove [his son] from the only home he has known since birth, and there is also an interest in keeping the siblings together.”

History provides dramatically different versions of what could happen.

Olga and Henry Burgos were unable to bond with their parents after they were reunited, the family later said. For Olga Burgos, the years living with her parents after they regained custody were like “being in a foreign country,” she said in a recent series of text messages. She relied on her older siblings to interpret.

“It was very very hard because I had to have someone at the house to tell me what my parents were telling me and my siblings were not always around,” she said.

She was sent to Puerto Rico for several years to live with her grandmother and learn Spanish. She was held back in school in Puerto Rico, placed in a third-grade classroom though she had been in fifth grade in Chicago. “Imagine an 11 year old in [third] grade,” she wrote. “I was one lost girl.”

After high school, she returned to Chicago and worked as a housekeeper. She often thought about her foster parents and, years later, moved to Arizona to be with them, according to a 2007 article in the Chicago Tribune. Henry, according to an earlier Tribune article, had run away repeatedly and never learned Spanish.

By comparison, Zapata still relives the joy of having his daughters back. Now 21 and 22, they live at home. One works as a dental assistant; the other pitches in at the family’s grocery store while taking a break from community college. Through their father, they declined to be interviewed.

Zapata wept as he described the months after he won custody. The girls refused to be apart and slept in the same bed. They had nightmares. For the first year, Zapata would check on them two or three times a night.

“My girls had some worries. They asked, ‘How did this happen?’” Zapata recalled.

He had learned enough English to communicate with his daughters when they came home, but he wanted them to learn Spanish. For several months, he took them to Spanish lessons on Saturday mornings.

They were baptized again, this time in the Catholic Church. They had their first communions and celebrated their 15th birthdays with traditional quinceañera parties. Each summer, his daughters visit their grandparents in Mexico.

With pride in his voice, Zapata said they “speak like Mexicans.”

Still, the pain of reliving what happened has kept Zapata from sitting down with them to discuss the case. He said he plans to have that conversation one day. He has kept a box of records for when that day comes.

Love, From a Distance

In February, Penar gave birth to Matias’ third child, another girl. Again, DCFS took custody.

In interviews in February and March, Penar said she hadn’t used drugs for several months. She blames herself for what has happened to her family. “I always trusted I’d eventually get it together and be the mother I wanted to be,” she said.

Matias remains in Guatemala, living in the two-story house built with the remittances he sent over the years. He picks up jobs in construction and as a driver but can’t find a steady income. He misses his old life, his old neighborhood, even snow. More than anything, he misses his children.

He said he has thought about returning to the U.S. illegally but won’t do it. He could end up in prison. And he still wonders if somebody involved in his children’s case reported him to immigration authorities last August; if that happened once, it could happen again.

A Cook County Juvenile Court judge is expected to rule soon on where his children will live. Matias wants them with him in Guatemala.

If his children can’t be with him, Matias said he’d like them to live with his relatives in Chicago, not with the Paleniks. “Maybe they were victims, too,” he said of the Paleniks. “But now they want to keep my children.” He fears that if they remain with the Paleniks, they will have an identity crisis later in life. “I want them to know their roots and their relatives,” he said.

For now, the two oldest children remain with them. After Matias’ arrest, DCFS encouraged the couple to expose the children to cartoons and music in Spanish. In September, the boy started attending preschool.

A neighbor from Poland whose daughter has grown up alongside Matias’ son said the boy “speaks Slovak, some Polish, and he’s learning English.” The Paleniks have told her they want to adopt the children. “They love them like their own,” she said. “They would do anything for them.”

In February, Jana Palenik started an online fundraiser for legal fees related to the case.

“Being a foster mom comes with everything that motherhood provides; plus extra worry for the kids’ future,” she wrote on a GoFundMe page she has since taken down. “After 5 years as foster parents, my husband and I have come to a point where seeking professional legal services is necessary in order to assure that all further court decisions are being done in the children’s best interests. While asking for donations to fund the legal costs, I’m also asking for prayers for our kiddos to have [a] happy and safe future.”

Matias’ youngest child is with his aunt and uncle, Gloria Arellano and Freddy Perez, who have embraced life with a newborn. Arellano quit her job and spends her days taking the baby to doctor’s appointments, meetings with DCFS and on walks in her stroller. The girl, who has her father’s wide eyes, is getting her first teeth and learning to smile. Outside court hearings, lawyers, caseworkers and Jana Palenik often take turns holding the baby and trying to make her laugh.

Arellano and Perez are Matias’ connection to the daughter he has never met. Nearly every morning, he messages them on Facebook to ask about his “princesa.” Arellano sends him photos and videos of the girl, usually dressed in pink with a flowered bow on her head.

They are conflicted about what’s best for their nephew’s children. They think siblings should grow up together and are remodeling the second floor of their home in case the others join them. At the boy’s fifth birthday party at the Paleniks’ home this month, they watched him hug the baby and call her his sister. At her own home, Arellano often pulls up videos on her phone of the older children to show the baby her siblings.

“Deep in my heart, I know that what happened here was wrong. Jorge’s rights were violated,” Arellano said. “And now DCFS wants to do its job. But they showed up too late.”

She and her husband have seen how close the older children are to their foster parents. Recently, they saw the Paleniks and the children by chance at Walmart. From a few aisles away, they watched them shop. Jana Palenik beamed as she fussed over the girl, almost 2 now, in her arms. Her husband lifted the boy in the air then set him down. He smiled as he walked alongside his foster parents.

They looked like a family.


Get Government & Politics updates in your inbox!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News