'I thought I was being rescued': Palatine woman abused in foster care leads legislation on DCFS

  • Trea Jackson of Palatine says her experiences as a child in foster care led her to provide ideas for new legislation that can help foster kids in the future. The bill has passed both houses of the General Assembly and is waiting to be signed by the governor.

      Trea Jackson of Palatine says her experiences as a child in foster care led her to provide ideas for new legislation that can help foster kids in the future. The bill has passed both houses of the General Assembly and is waiting to be signed by the governor. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Trea Jackson of Palatine wrote a book titled "The Innocent Eyes of a Child," based on her experiences in foster care.

      Trea Jackson of Palatine wrote a book titled "The Innocent Eyes of a Child," based on her experiences in foster care. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
By Maria Gardner
mgardner@dailyherald.com
Updated 4/27/2022 2:00 PM

A Palatine resident and former foster kid brought her ideas for improving the child welfare system to her legislator, and that has resulted in a bill aimed at better support for children in state custody.

Trea Jackson brought her vision for change, and a written proposal, to state Rep. Thomas Morrison, a Palatine Republican.

 

"Jackson, a product of the system herself, was able to look back as an adult and recognize some deficiencies that could be addressed," Morrison said.

In the final bill that Jackson, now 42, helped craft, child welfare workers would be required to assess the well-being of a child placed in foster care and teach them about behavior by adults that is inappropriate. The bill received bipartisan support in the General assembly and awaits Gov. J.B. Pritzker's signature.

Jackson was 5 when she was removed from her home, the victim of physical abuse and neglect. She aged out of the foster care system at 21 after more than 40 placements, including in California and Florida, as well as homeless shelters and psych wards, she said.

"I thought I was being rescued, but I wasn't," Jackson said.

In one placement, she became a victim of physical and emotional abuse from a male foster guardian, but she never received a visit from a social worker whom she could tell.

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Trea Jackson, here at age 7, entered the foster care system at age 5, after she abused and neglected.
Trea Jackson, here at age 7, entered the foster care system at age 5, after she abused and neglected. - courtesy of TreA Jackson

The number of children mistreated while under foster care has fluctuated over the years, according to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. The rate of victimization per 100,000 days in foster care was 15.3 in November 2018 and 16.7 in September 2021, with the highest rate in the range occurring in May 2021 at 18.5. The rates are significantly higher than what's called the Illinois Standard, 9 victimizations per 100,000 days in foster care.

Knowing mistreatment

Under the bill, once children are in custody of DCFS, they are to receive age-appropriate instruction that includes a document outlining what is acceptable and unacceptable affection, discipline and punishment from any adult or foster sibling they are in contact with while in a foster home.

When kids are better at identifying what inappropriate and appropriate behavior is, they are better at "reporting back to their caseworker when they come in and say, 'How are things going in the house?'" said Ashley Deckert, director of public policy and governmental affairs for the Illinois Collaboration on Youth. The trade organization for child and youth service organizations supports the bill.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Jackson recalls the doctor examining her, counting the number of bruises and marking on a chart their location on her body. What she didn't receive was an explanation to tell her what was happening and where she was going.

The intent of the bill is to require "a DCFS investigator or the signing caseworker to have a meaningful conversation with the youth explaining where they will be placed and why they are being placed there," Deckert said.

A DCFS worker should also, according to the bill, "assess their emotional health and well-being, assess the relationship being built with the guardian or foster parent, and continue to assess safety and risk factors that might exist at the home."

Some DCFS workers already have these conversations with youths when they are placed in foster homes, Deckert said. The provision ensures DCFS incorporates the policy, resulting in "consistent statewide practice," she said.

How foster kids grow up

The instability in Jackson's life led her to become depressed. She said she cut herself and developed an eating disorder.

In her adolescent years, she stopped trying to make friends "because I wasn't able to keep them," Jackson said.

Trea Jackson, here at age 13, was placed in more than 40 different homes as well as homeless shelters by the time she aged out of the system at 21.
Trea Jackson, here at age 13, was placed in more than 40 different homes as well as homeless shelters by the time she aged out of the system at 21. - Courtesy of TreA Jackson

Writing allowed her to jot down ideas describing her pain as well as create a world where she was adopted and protected by loving parents. Misunderstood by her foster parents in one setting, Jackson said she was placed in a psych ward for being "weird."

"It took me a long time to recover from the scarring, not only from the foster care system but from being abused as a young child," she said.

The bill also brings attention to young adults aging out of the system and requires a welfare worker to explain to them their rights to enroll in independent living services.

The services teach young adults about finances, how to be self-sufficient, how to prepare meals, get ready for the job market and set goals for themselves, she said.

Jackson said without support, many former foster kids end up on the street, in prison or homeless, which she experienced for a year after aging out of the system.

"I want kids graduating from college, getting good jobs and knowing that they matter," she said.

Jackson completed an undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology, and another master's degree in social work.

She now is employed as a social worker and also wrote a book sharing her life experiences called "The Innocent Eyes of a Child."

DCFS involved in bill

DCFS was consulted in the creation of the bill, which changes the Foster Children's Bill of Rights.

"All of our youth in care deserve to be placed in safe, comfortable living spaces, and this legislation will help ensure children understand that DCFS is here to support them if they feel uncomfortable or neglected while in foster care," said William McCaffrey, DCFS communications director, via email.

Jackson said the bill brings some change to DCFS, but what's necessary is "reform from top to bottom with compassion for the children in their care."

The number of children in state custody rose from 16,780 in fiscal year 2017 to 22,357 in 2021, a 33% increase, according to a DCFS report. By the end of fiscal year 2022, the projected number of children in foster care is 22,911.

Suburban legislators among the sponsors of the bill included Democrat state Sens. Julie Morrison of Lake Forest and Laura Murphy of Des Plaines, state Democratic Reps. Jonathan Carroll of Northbrook and Joyce Mason of Gurnee, and Republican state Reps. Steven Reick of Woodstock and Chris Bos of Lake Zurich.

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