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Illinois child protection agency places kids in juvenile detention who never committed crimes, lawsuit claims

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Children from abused and neglected households are taken in by the state's child welfare department with a promise of being kept safe. But a lawsuit filed Thursday challenges how safe the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is really keeping some of the state's most vulnerable kids, CBS Chicago's Chris Tye reports.

The suit highlights the story of how the system left one girl locked up. 

The same happened to dozens of other kids who were placed behind bars despite never having done anything wrong, the suit asserts.

Why were they there? The reason, the suit says, was that the state was out of placement beds.

And now, Tye says, victims are out of patience.

"They don't care about me," said Janiah Cane, 18. "They don't want to help me out of this horrible place."

The first "horrible place" Caine ended up was Cook County Juvenile Court.

Caine was a minor when she entered Family Court – a relative had turned violent. A victim of child abuse, she was asked to speak the truth about her abuser in exchange for protection by DCFS.

"When I was told ... 'I'm going to keep you safe,' I would expect you to keep me safe," Caine said, "and in that place, I didn't feel safe."

Caine then ended up in another "horrible place" – behind bars at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Before it was over, she would spend 166 nights there. 

"Sometimes I even feel like they wanted me in there, because I was in there so long," Caine said in disgust.

She had done nothing wrong. The reason she was in the lockup was because DCFS was out of beds, the lawsuit claims.

"I don't know," Caine said. "It's a lot of emotions and feelings that you feel - because nobody wants to be in a horrible place like that, where you're fighting girls."

When she asked for a temporary release to attend her grandmother's funeral, her caseworker couldn't be found - and she missed it.

"They were taking so long to find my DCFS case worker because nobody knew where she was," Caine said. "I felt horrible. I felt so many emotions, like anger, sadness - because I loved her so much."

This suit tells the story of Caine and eight other kids who spent anywhere from 45 days to six months wrongfully incarcerated.

Michael spent 45 days, David 86 days, Jordan 150 days, James 240 days, Kate more than three months, John five and a half months, Elliot more than six months, and Thomas more than seven months, according to Tye.

As of Thursday evening, seven kids were still locked up when they shouldn't have been, Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert said. They've logged over 239 days under lock and key despite doing nothing wrong, he said.

This, despite the fact that a judge has ordered the kids released back to their caregivers.

"They leave their kids to rot in detention when a judge has ordered them out," Golbert said.

"If DCFS continues to have these policies that hurt children, then they will pay - and they will pay until they stop doing it and it never happens again to another child," said attorney Russell Ainsworth.

Ainsworth said a jury will end up deciding what the dollar figure should be - but the policy of locking kids up costs hundreds of thousands more than properly staffing placement facilities would.

"As we speak, there are actually empty beds in placements - because the placements aren't being paid enough money to be fully staffed," Golbert said.

Caine said the failures in the DCFS system run from up high all the way down the line.

"They never do their job," Caine said. "There have been times that they have left me - not just jail, other places that are horrible that you get treated wrong and stuff like that."

Caine walked out from behind the bars behind which she didn't belong - and now hopes the lawsuit changes policies and improves the lives of future kids dealt life's hardest hand.

"Everybody in there should be free," Caine said. "It can be about their life - get a job, do something with their life instead of just sitting in jail."

She hopes the lawsuit prompts changes and protects other kids.

"I hope that they don't have to go through this, and the people after them don't have to go through this," Caine said.

Tye reached out to DCFS for comment on the lawsuit. The agency issued this statement:

"The Department of Children and Family Services works as quickly as possible to place youth in appropriate and safe settings. Of course, we can only place youth where we have availability that meets their needs, which is why the department is also working to expand the capacity that was hollowed out under previous administrations. Thanks to this work, in recent years we have made progress in reducing the number of youth who remain in the justice system past the date they are allowed to be released and we are deeply committed to continued progress. We cannot comment further due to pending litigation."

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