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 Seventh Circuit's suggestion that the agonizing choice at the center of this case – between leaving one's family or having one's children taken into state custody – is no different than choosing between a 'Martini' or a 'Manhattan' at a cocktail party, trivializes the family's fundamental liberty interests," writes Stanford law professor and lawyer Jeffrey Fisher in a brief to the court on behalf of the Illinois families.Skip to next paragraph
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"When a person is offered a 'Martini or a Manhattan,' he always retains the option of declining both drinks," Mr. Fisher says. "Though it has no evidence of parental wrongdoing, DCFS does not offer parents the option of no restrictions on their family life when it 'offers' safety plans."
Parents never risk losing children
The safety plan program began in 1995. Safety plans are offered to an estimated 10,000 Illinois families each year. There is no record that any parent has ever refused to participate in a safety plan and risk having the state take custody of his or her children.
Illinois officials defend the program, saying parents voluntarily agree to safety plans. They say the plans are designed to provide a middle path between taking every child into state custody or leaving children in the presence of potential abusers during an investigation.
The safety plans are severe enough to prompt the participation of other family members like grandparents or aunts but not so severe as to wrest the child from his or her home, officials say.
State child-protection officials say their mission is different from that of the criminal justice system and that they should not be held to a high legal standard. DCFS is protective and supportive, not punitive, they say. As one official put it: "We are expected to go into a home, determine what has happened, and predict what might happen in the future."
Both sides in the case dispute various statistics. Fisher says allegations in approximately two-thirds of all Illinois hot-line reports are eventually determined to be "unfounded." The state responds that less than 20 percent of all hot-line reports are even investigated.
Fisher and Ms. Redleaf offer several examples of parents accused of child abuse. One case involved a married couple, both professors at a major Chicago-area university. Someone made an anonymous call to the hot line suggesting that one of the professors had abused his 8-year-old adopted daughter. Prior to any investigation into the veracity of the charge, state agents offered the professor a choice: leave the home immediately pursuant to a safety plan or DCFS would take the girl into foster care. The professor moved out. During the investigation, the state found no credible evidence supporting the abuse charge.
In another case, high school science teacher James Redlin was suspected of child abuse after state authorities received an anonymous tip that he had sexually abused his mildly autistic 6-year-old son on an occupied subway train. Mr. Redlin says it was playful tickling, not sexual abuse. But someone thought his conduct was inappropriate and informed state investigators. The state's safety plan required Mr. Redlin's wife, who uses a wheelchair, to provide 24-hour supervision of any contact between Redlin and their son. That case was later determined to be "unfounded."
In a third case, a preschool teacher, Patrick DeLaFont, was accused in a hot-line call of abusing a preschool child. State investigators required Mr. DeLaFont to move out of his home, pending the investigation, even though none of his own children were the subject of the accusation. After living apart from his family for 11 months, investigators concluded the allegation against DeLaFont was "unfounded."
After a 2-year-old girl fell from a back porch while playing, her parents took her to a hospital emergency room where X-rays revealed a fractured arm. Someone at the hospital doubted the back-porch explanation. State investigators demanded that the husband – seen as the likely abuser – leave the family home for 24 hours. He did so. A week later, the day before Thanksgiving, agents ordered both parents out of the house or risk having both their children taken into foster care. Grandparents arrived to care for the children while the parents were sent away. A week later, the parents were allowed to return home to their children after another doctor examined the X-rays and found no basis to suspect child abuse.