To the Editor:
The Northwest Herald began its series about the failures of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services with this question: “What does it take to remove a child from the home?”
Paradoxically, it takes almost nothing. And that very fact actually makes tragedies such as the deaths of A.J. Freund and Sema’j Crosby more likely.
Most DCFS cases are nothing like the horror stories. Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect.” Nationwide, multiple studies have found that 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if their parents just had adequate housing.
In Illinois, the sweeping definition of “neglect” in state law includes lack of “adequate food, clothing, and shelter.”
And there is nothing complicated about the process. Workers can, and do, take children on their own authority, going to court after-the-fact to get rubber-stamp approval from a judge.
But if it’s so easy, how can children be left in their homes in cases where the file has more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day parade? Sometimes workers are lazy, sometimes they’re incompetent. But far more often they are so overwhelmed by false allegations, trivial cases and poverty cases that they don’t have time to give any case the attention it deserves.
All these lessons should have been learned after the death of Joseph Wallace in 1993. As your story points out, the foster-care panic that followed sent the number of children in care soaring. But something else happened as well: child abuse deaths actually increased. The decline in foster care numbers that followed was done under the watchful eyes of independent court monitors. They found that as foster care numbers declined, child safety improved. That record continued until it was undermined by budget cuts and an ill-conceived privatization scheme.
As Benjamin Wolf, Legal Director of the Illinois ACLU, said at the time, learning the wrong lessons after Joseph Wallace’s death made a bad system “unquestionably worse.” I hope the Herald will help lead Illinois to better answers this time.
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform