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This is a three-part series originally broadcast on WGLT's newsmagazine Sound Ideas in September 2022. The solutions-based reporting is aimed at rethinking how Illinois' child welfare system could work.

New approach to child welfare challenges the definition of neglect

Salli Shields
Seth Perlman
/
AP file
A food pantry in central Illinois. Sometimes what looks like neglect is actually a family struggling with poverty, said Heidi Dalenberg, the ACLU lawyer handling a pending federal lawsuit against DCFS.

When a hotline call comes into a child welfare agency, the chances that the allegation will involve neglect are more than four times greater than the odds of a claim alleging physical abuse.

Child welfare experts have raised questions about the hundreds of thousands of minors reported to be victims of abuse each year in the U.S., in particular those cases where the consequences of poverty may become blurred with the definition of neglect. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services uses two categories — abuse and neglect — to help determine if a family meets the criteria for state intervention.

Of the 618,000 children who were victims of confirmed abuse and neglect in 2019, 76.1% were categorized as neglect cases, according to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Maltreatment 2020 report. Physical abuse made up 16.5% of the cases; 9.4% were sexually abused and 0.2% were victims of sex trafficking, according to the federal report.

Sometimes what looks like neglect is actually a family struggling with poverty, said Heidi Dalenberg, the ACLU lawyer handling a pending federal lawsuit against DCFS.

“It is well recognized that child welfare agencies do a good job of identifying abuse but they are not as good at identifying neglect. We need better support for parents who are at the poverty level,” said Dalenberg.

Parents who are forced to work long hours to make ends meet may become the target of neglect allegations, said the ACLU lawyer, when what they need is help with childcare, housing, and other essentials.

 Nancy Buckner
Nancy Buckner, commissioner of Alabama’s Department of Human Resources.

Last year, former DCFS director Jess McDonald commented that struggling families need three essentials to survive: housing, food and clothing for their children. When mandated reporters notice children lacking these essentials, they often turn to child welfare, he said.

Professionals, including teachers, police and medical personnel, submitted 66.7% of the 2020 reports of alleged neglect and abuse, according to the federal report on child welfare. The reports included information on 1,480 child deaths and more than 1,000 claims of neglect that may be have been a factor.

Each state creates its own definitions of abuse and neglect and sets a threshold for when a child should be removed from a home. In Alabama, the Department of Human Resources policy manual has a section devoted to how case workers should handle poverty issues.

“Poverty is absolutely no reason to bring a child into care. And it is no reason to keep a child in foster care,” said Nancy Buckner, commissioner of Alabama’s Department of Human Resources. Welfare workers may open a case in order to address issues such as housing, transportation or overdue court fines, Buckner said in an interview with WGLT.

“We assess the whole family, in its totality, and in an effort to keep a family together. That’s what a good child welfare system should be doing. A lot of foster care should be a last resort and it should always involve child safety,” said the leader of Alabama’s agency that oversees 5,800 children in state custody.

Families need individualized service plans tailored to their needs, said Buckner, adding that input from caregivers can make the difference between success and failure.

New Family Treatment Court

In McLean County, a new Family Treatment Court could help families with multiple issues by bringing together a range of social service agencies into one courtroom.

Associate Judge Amy McFarland leads the Family Division for the 11th Judicial Circuit and serves as presiding judge of Recovery Court, a specialized court for defendants with mental illness. McFarland is supervising the work for a planning grant to determine if a family court is right for the five-county judicial circuit.

Judge Amy McFarland
Associate Judge Amy McFarland leads the Family Division for the 11th Judicial Circuit .

Part of the research for the court project involves collection of data from family, juvenile, and abuse and neglect cases. Getting to the root cause of why people become involved in the court system is something the court team will explore, said McFarland.

“I think we’re seeing much more mental health and substance abuse issues in all our courtrooms. I think if the data was explored and you went to the root of criminal activity, you could trace that back to the family courts, juvenile and neglect and abuse courts, and people who have been a part of the judicial system somewhere since they were young,” said McFarland.

Unlike other problem-solving courts that have the power to sanction defendants with jail time, the family court would be a civil court with a different st of potential sanctions.

“If you’re not successful in the program, it’s potentially termination of parental rights,” said McFarland, or loss of parenting time with children.

The idea of a family court occurred to McFarland as she observed the fallout of proceedings in the mental health and family courts where children often suffer the consequences of adults’ decisions.

McFarland recalls asking herself a series of questions: “What can I do as a divorce or family judge? What could I do earlier?” And in cases involving mental health or substance abuse issues, “is there assistance that can be generated for these children?”

Currently, the only other family treatment court is in Lake County. Funding for the planning grant would come from The Center for Children and Family Futures and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. The planning process is expected to last a year, putting a decision on the program sometimes after October 2023.

Partners for the new court could include public health, mental health and substance agencies, DCFS and other child welfare advocates. The court will reply on such expertise, said McFarland.

“It’s not the court’s role to become social workers, but the court brings with it some authority and accountability. I think there’s a difference when the court is there providing accountability, and there’s much more success in obtaining basic needs, and addressing substance abuse,” said the judge.

The goal of the family-centered court would be to define the problems that brought a family to the attention of child welfare workers and link the parents to services that will allow them to succeed. McFarland is looking to bring the same kind of positive outcomes seen in Recovery Court to a family courtroom.

“I see all these people who have children and don’t have interactions with them and they don’t pay child support. As they go through the program, we get them assistance to start paying child support and they start to see their children. All of a sudden, you see them so invested in their recovery and children having a relationship with their parents,” said the judge.

Efforts from the bench could put families back on track, said McFarland, and provide “outcomes of unity and assistance earlier than going down to the felony courtrooms and trying to address things when we’re potentially on the verge of prison.”

Coming Wednesday: Policymakers in Illinois discuss the challenges facing the state's child welfare system.

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Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.
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