Child-abuse claims vs. parents' rights
Supreme Court mulls whether to take a suit accusing Illinois of forcing families to give up rights.
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The case arises at a legal crossroads between the government's interest in moving quickly to safeguard children from abuse or neglect and the right of parents to raise and maintain a family without undue government interference.
The high court is scheduled to consider whether to take up the case, Dupuy v. McEwen, at its private conference Thursday. An order agreeing or refusing to hear the appeal could come as early as Monday.
State procedures to investigate allegations of child abuse have been a topic of national concern after more than 400 children from a polygamist group's ranch in west Texas were taken from their parents and held for nearly two months in foster care. The Texas Supreme Court later ordered state officials to return the children to their parents while the investigation continues.
At issue in the Illinois case is whether state officials can use the potential threat of placing children in foster care as a means to pressure parents to forfeit their parental rights.
Agents with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) routinely advise parents in the initial stage of an abuse investigation that their children may be taken into state custody unless the parents agree to a state-imposed "safety plan." Such plans can require the accused parent or parents to leave the home immediately and cease all unsupervised contact with their children for the duration of the investigation, according to a lawsuit filed by a group of Illinois parents.
Imposition of the safety plan can be authorized by a single unconfirmed tip received via an anonymous child-abuse hot line, the suit says.
In contrast, to authorize the removal of children from their parents, authorities must be able to present enough evidence to convince a judge that there is "reasonable suspicion" that a child has been abused or is in imminent danger.
Illinois officials bypass this evidentiary standard and judicial oversight by giving parents an offer they can't refuse, according to the lawsuit.
The offer: Agree to a safety plan or your children may be taken away. Parents are not given an opportunity to know the substance and source of an abuse allegation, nor are they given an opportunity to challenge the safety plan before a neutral decisionmaker.
Is it coercion? Judges disagree.
A federal judge ruled that such tactics by state officials were a form of coercion. But a federal appeals court disagreed. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago upheld the state program, saying it raised no constitutional issues because the parents had voluntarily agreed to the safety plan.
"We can't see how parents are made worse off by being given the option of accepting the offer of a safety plan," wrote Circuit Judge Richard Posner. He said the safety plan offers parents more options, not fewer options.
"If you tell a guest that you will mix him either a Martini or a Manhattan, how is he worse off than if you tell him you'll mix him a Martini?" Judge Posner wrote.
Lawyers for the families say parents have a fundamental right to raise their children without government involvement unless officials can show evidence of abuse.
"There has to be some compelling interest in overriding that basic protection [of parents' rights], and a hot-line call by itself doesn't cut it," says Diane Redleaf, executive director of the Family Defense Center in Chicago and a lead lawyer in the case.