The recent news that DCFS investigations are missing the mark isn’t news to me. I have sued DCFS more than a dozen times and have established, through federal court findings, that the state’s child-welfare system has a staggering rate of error in its investigations. But the mistakes my cases have demonstrated are much different from the ones highlighted by recent news stories about child deaths. In fact, they are just the opposite: They show a DCFS too quick on the trigger to pull children from the care of suitable parents.
Without any oversight, review, or lawfully vested authority, DCFS regularly removes children from their homes and places them with relatives — a coercive separation that is often based on nothing the parent has actually done to harm the child.
DCFS also rampantly labels parents as guilty by innuendo, only to have its determinations overturned once a neutral judge reviews the evidence. These widespread errors never see the light of day because they don’t even make it to a juvenile courtroom, let alone a newsroom.
In other words, DCFS finds abuse where it doesn’t exist, while real abusers fall through the cracks.
The pain and trauma caused by the overly intrusive investigative practices leave long-lasting scars for the families and children DCFS touches.
In fact, in 2012, the Illinois Supreme Court declared void a policy under which DCFS investigates nearly a third of its cases annually. Instead of tightening its investigations in the face of this ruling and complying with the companion changes in state law, DCFS has continued to investigate and label more than 6,000 parents as child neglectors without any evidence of actual neglectful conduct in many of these cases. As a result, the Family Defense Center had to sue DCFS again in September to compel the agency to follow the clear mandate of the law.
The cases our office defends are not at all like the horrendous death cases recently reported. Our cases often involve a parent who turned her head at the same moment a child fell, or a false allegation made by a disgruntled spouse in a bitter divorce proceeding. This is the typical fare for DCFS. In fact, such situations account for more than two-thirds of the DCFS caseload.
In the wake of the recent tragedies, it’s important to keep in mind that calls for more DCFS investigators won’t fix the problem. That’s because DCFS resources are being misallocated by targeting too many families that shouldn’t be swept into the system in the first place. DCFS simply cannot investigate its way out of a lack of standards for assessing child abuse and neglect, insufficient training, failure to coordinate services (or to provide appropriate follow-up services) and lack of accountability.
The real challenge is to pare down the DCFS caseload in order to allow DCFS to focus on the serious abuse cases, so that tragic deaths do not recur. One step in the right direction would be for DCFS to renew its efforts to deflect cases based on poverty into support services so that it can concentrate precious investigative resources on serious physical and sexual abuse cases.
Children deserve protection from abusive parents and caregivers, and the public is entitled to demand such protection from DCFS. But accountability starts with having a clear definition of abuse and neglect and an ability to recognize which cases should be investigated and which families should be left alone. Not all Hotline calls are credible, and only a fraction of DCFS calls involve actual or serious threats of harm to a child.
To better protect children from dangerous parents, DCFS needs to stop trying to protect children from good parents who have not abused or neglected them. On both sides of getting it right, there is much room for improvement.
Diane L. Redleaf is the founder and executive director of the Family Defense Center, an organization that advocates for justice for families in the child welfare system.