Foster care in Illinois has a long list of issues. No one knows that better than MsWhitney Holt.
"Jail for some of us would have been better," Holt said.
At three years old, her mother went to prison, Holt went into the foster system. She was sent to live with her aunt which is where the issues quickly began.
"In my foster home I had three male cousins, and from the time I was five, until I left, I was molested and raped," Holt said.
She didn't leave until she was 15 years old. Even though she left, more abuse awaited her.
At 17, DCFS transferred her into Rock River Academy in Rockford.
The facility was supposed to provide short-term therapeutic assistance for her depression and anger issues that developed at her previous homes.
“It just became horrible. There were riots,” Holt said.
Fights between girls were common, and police were often called for children who tried to run away.
Holt said she was told she would only spend a year at the academy. That didn't happen.
“Nobody got out in 12 months unless you ran away,” Holt said.
She spent two-and-a-half-years at the academy.
She left just a few years before the facility was shut down after allegations of physical and sexual abuse surfaced.
“It takes twice as long to move a kid in a permanent setting in Illinois than the national average,” said Illinois DCFS Director George Sheldon.
Illinois ranks last in the country for getting foster kids into a permanent home in a timely manner, according to DCFS.
13 News spoke with a number of former foster children and current foster parents who say kids can spend months, even years longer in the system than they're supposed to.
“It causes so many anger issues, emotional issues, it's horrifying because they don't know what to expect next except that they're going to move again,” said Lutheran Social Services Foster Parent Resource Worker Brittany Matz.
“I was angry and why wouldn't you be angry? You go from foster homes, to group homes, and you never figured out why you were so angry,” said Krystle Gall.
Gall was told she would be at Rock River Academy for 60 days.
Instead, she spent more than two years.
“If I wasn't told that I would only have to do 60 days, I wouldn't have gone in the first place,” Gall said.
“It clearly is not the place a child should grow up,” said George Sheldon.
George Sheldon took over as director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services in 2015.
He's the ninth director in five years, and said the agency was, and still is, in need of some major changes.
“The state on it's best day isn't a good parent. Kids need to be in homes,” Sheldon said.
One way DCFS is trying to keep kids in homes, and out of group facilities, is through a pilot program called 'Therapeutic Foster Care.”
Just recently, Lutheran Social Services in Rockford was chosen as one of the grant recipients.
“Getting children out of residential homes and into family homes is better for them. They're more successful,” Matz said.
The focus of the program is on kids who struggle, and typically are sent to places like Rock River Academy.
The 13 adults who are in the program aren't psychologists, but they do receive extensive training to be a foster parent for the children.
Andrea and Jonathan Burney are two of those parents. They already have a busy household with four biological kids.
Soon their house will become a little more crowded.
“There is a fear of the unknown,” said Jonathan Burney. “Because we don't know what child we are going to get... right down to what baggage they are going to bring with them, that we are going to help to unpack.”
A child will be placed in the Burney's home for six to nine months before moving into a permanent home.
The Burney's will be paid more than regular foster parents, and will receive around-the-clock support from Lutheran Social Services.
The hope is they will be able to provide the same therapeutic service but in a more intimate setting.
“We can do a lot of good, and it's exciting to think that we can help mold the system, just on a personal level from our own home,” Jonathan Burney said.
MsWhitney said it's a step in the right direction, but she knows for the kids, and the parents, it's not going to be easy.
“It might be hard at first. It's not going to be something that happens overnight because these kids are coming in here a little iffy. Are your intentions good or are your intentions bad?” she asked.
Holt's eyes are on the future. Now 25, she's well out of foster care. But she's not giving up on the system.
Holt is just a few classes away from graduating college. Her major is psychology. Her dream job is to help fellow foster children.
In the past few years five residential facilities have closed in Illinois. 44 remain open.
One of the other things DCFS said will reduce wait times for foster kids is more foster parents.
Contact Brittany Matz from Lutheran Social Services at 815-969-8836 for information on how you can become a foster parent.
Illinois DCFS was recently granted a waiver of restriction on federal foster-care funds. The waiver allows the agency to address family problems without having to remove children from their homes and put them in foster care. The Illinois DCFS says the waiver will save money and help keep kids in homes, instead of breaking them apart.