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Hard cases make bad law

Monday, Apr 29, 2019

* When Gov. JB Pritzker announced that Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, which is a combination of a think tank and a policy implementation consultant, would take a look at DCFS’ problems, the organization sent out a press release containing this passage

With the lowest foster care entry rate in the nation, Illinois has a high threshold for child removal. Safe implementation of this threshold depends upon the use of accurate and sensitive tools for detecting safety threats and risk, as well as the availability of preventive services to stabilize and support families as they work toward meeting the needs of their children.

* This is again coming to light in the wake of the death of yet another child, AJ Freund, who had been under DCFS oversight

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which on Friday revealed new details about the case, has limited legal authority to remove a child from a parent’s custody and does so only if it finds an “imminent and immediate” risk of harm. Even its harshest critics concede that not all deaths are preventable, as the overburdened state agency is tasked with the difficult job of trying to predict future human behavior.

* But, I mean, what the heck?

• [AJ’s mother JoAnn Cunningham] was investigated for child neglect even before AJ was born, when she herself was a foster parent.

• AJ spent the first 18 months of his life in the care of his cousin after being born with opiates in his system.

• Back in his parents’ home on Dole Avenue in Crystal Lake in June 2015, AJ’s family had 17 unannounced visits from DCFS workers and nine scheduled visits, according to DCFS records.

He remained in the home, even after a doctor expressed concern to a DCFS investigator about a large bruise AJ had on his hip that his mom said was caused by the family dog. AJ agreed to that account but commented to the doctor, “Maybe someone hit me with a belt. Maybe Mommy didn’t mean to hurt me.”


* More

Rep. Tom Weber, a Lake Villa Republican whose district includes the area where AJ lived, focused on the last contact DCFS had with the child before he was reported missing. After initially blaming bruises on the family dog, AJ told emergency room staff, “Maybe someone hit me with a belt. Maybe mommy didn’t mean to hurt me,” according to agency records. A DCFS investigator allowed AJ to leave the hospital with his father.

“That sounds like a red flag to me,” Weber said.

“And you are correct,” said Anne Gold, DCFS associate deputy for child protection, acknowledging the agency’s “missed opportunity.”

“We should be getting a second opinion from one of our child abuse experts,” Gold said. “So that piece was missed.”

The “piece was missed” and a child was murdered. Inexcusable.

* Family fights are often the worst fights. DCFS often has to sift through claims and counter-claims made by parents and their relatives during heated custody battles

Court records show a lengthy and often volatile legal fight between mother and daughter for custody of the boy. The boy’s grandmother outlines her daughter’s history of drug addiction and mental illness as well as her grandson’s own pleas to stay in the grandmother’s home.

Cunningham claims she ran away from her mother’s home at age 15 because of her mother’s “erratic and demeaning treatment” of her. The legal fight lingered for years, but ultimately the grandmother prevailed and retained custody of Cunningham’s oldest son.

You’d think the grandmother’s legal victory would make it easier for DCFS to remove the other two children from the home, but that didn’t happen. AJ was allegedly murdered by his parents and the third child wasn’t removed until after he was reported missing.

Was that due to incompetence (bureaucratic or individual), or restrictive state laws or a combination of both? Probably both.

* More

Representatives on the Illinois house appropriations human services committee blasted that finding on Friday, questioning DCFS leaders as to why the case wasn’t referred to the judicial system, especially given the family’s long history of contact with the agency.

“Wouldn’t this raise red flags immediately?” said Rep. Anna Moeller. “There was no court involved here, DCFS never went to the court to ask he be taken out of that environment. It was allowed to persist.”

* We tend to swing back and forth on the law. For instance, do you remember this case from less than three years ago?

In a case that challenges racial disparities in the child welfare system, the Family Defense Center on Thursday filed a petition asking the Illinois Supreme Court to review a lower court decision to terminate all parental rights of a 23-year-old Peoria mother. The mother, who is biracial and identifies as lesbian, was found to be “unfit” and her rights to raise her 6-year-old son were terminated primarily because she used marijuana during a nine-month period in 2013 and 2014.

Torie I. and her lawyers at the Family Defense Center are asking the Illinois Supreme Court to determine that the strict legal requirements for the final and permanent severance of the parent-child relationship have not been satisfied. The Center argues that the State presented no evidence as to how Torie’s marijuana use affected her ability to care for her son or had harmed her son. Torie has admitted to smoking cannabis to calm herself, but never in front of her child.

Racial and sexual orientation bias may have played a significant role in the state’s decision to pursue a termination of parental rights, the petition suggests. The Center cites the child removal rate in Peoria County, which is nearly 8 times greater for African American than for families of other races. Torie’s child was placed in foster care with an unrelated, white pre-adoptive family, even though she had a strong bond with the child.

Chapin Hall’s initial report on DCFS is due soon. A legislative rush to judgment would not be advisable.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

  1. - TheInvisibleMan - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 11:18 am:

    The ILGOP spent almost 3 years playing hostage with the state budget, causing incalculable(but predictable) negative impacts to state agencies across the board.

    Any republican hand-wringing over any of this, without mentioning their participation in decimating the budgets for these agencies, should be shamed into exile.

    Policies aren’t just ways to draw attention to yourself. They have real world consequences, and the lives and well-being of real human beings are on the line.

    I do not think a single republican is being genuine in their concern. If they were, they would not have participated in the damage caused to this agency for the last few years.

  2. - wordslinger - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 11:25 am:

    –A legislative rush to judgment would not be advisable.–

    No it is not, and neither is legislative and edit board grandstanding when a horrifying case filters up to them in the media. Unless the objective is their own self-regard.

    I wonder if those who are jumping on this unbearably sad case would support terminating parental rights over a bruise on the hip from a belt.

    I seriously have my doubts. I’ve heard too many “when I was a boy, my daddy used to….” spare-the-rod, spoil-the-child stories from the same crowds over the years.

  3. - Three Dimensional Checkers - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 11:32 am:

    This has got to be an example of unconscious class and racial bias if there ever was one. Some old white lawyer is allowed to abuse his kids to the point that he murders one, and really two government agencies, don’t forget the ARDC, treat him with kid gloves all the way up to the point when he murders his 5 year old son.

  4. - common_sense - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 11:34 am:

    My mommy did not mean to hurt me along with several home visits from DCFS is not the fault of not having a budget. Time to remove any political differences and help these children.

  5. - NoGifts - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 11:42 am:

    My question is always, what about other family members? Aunts, uncles, grandparents, nieces, nephews. Didn’t anyone see something wrong? And if those closes to this couple didn’t see anything wrong, I’d say they hid it pretty well and that’s why the caseworker couldn’t see concrete evidence. You can’t remove a child on suspicions, I don’t think. And I feel very sorry for the caseworker.

  6. - Wensicia - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 11:55 am:

    Part of the conversation must be about the decimation of mental health services in this state, supported by the GOP. How many more children are in the custody of a relative with untreated mental health issues?

  7. - Responsa - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 11:58 am:

    The grandmother who fought for custody and the oldest son who left home and never went back no doubt had reams of information about what was really going on in that home. I wonder if anyone from DCFS ever asked them. When AJ told the doctor about the belt and maybe Mommy didn’t mean to hurt him the case and AJ should have immediately been turned over to law enforcement–not an overworked caseworker. That’s the part that angers me most.

  8. - Yiddishcowboy - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 12:04 pm:

    I’m literally sick to my stomach after reading the child’s statement re his mommy and the belt. This statement and the hope in the child’s heart that his mother didn’t really mean to hurt him will forever be in my memory. Good G-d…why does this have to happen? Just why? How many more innocent kids have to suffer and hope their mommy or daddy didn’t mean to do a, b, or c? I’m going to hold my own kids a little longer and harder tonight while telling them how much I love them.

  9. - thoughts matter - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 12:08 pm:

    Class, income and race are obvious ways that parents get discriminated against in terms of custody. It’s hard for someone who is broke to meet rules such as number of beds or square feet on the home- or even a home. If every pot smoker is in danger of losing their children, we need to rethink the rules.

    On the other hand, the rules used to state that reunification was always preferred. That is most likely why AJ ended up back at his parents home. We need to balance that better.

    Besides rule changes, it’s going to take a lot more caseworkers and then some security for them. You can’t do a good job if you have more cases than you can actually work on weekly. You can’t do a good job if you are in danger every time you visit a family.
    Now which large group of the taxpayers screaming about the tax rates and/or the proposed graduated tax rates will raise their hands and pledge to support increased taxes for additional caseworkers? Because that’s what it’s going to take to hire more people- who will deserve every penny of their salaries, benefits, and pensions.

  10. - common_sense - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 12:12 pm:

    That is one tax increase I would support if the legislature were constitutionally bound not to pilfer any of those funds.

  11. - Jocko - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 12:17 pm:

    I’d love to lay most of this at DCFS’s feet, but dad prohibited the case worker from seeing AJ three times. He AND his wife were monsters, plain and simple.

    I’m also trying to figure out if police acted upon finding “…Cunningham asleep in her car, her arms, neck and feet covered in ‘fresh track marks’ from needles.”

  12. - Almost the weekend - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 12:34 pm:

    DCFS is a favorite punching bag, but there needs to be some personal responsibility on the parents. That starts in middle school and high school for sex education which is often restricted because school boards like to play doctor.

    You can’t hold State agencies hostage for two years and expect this agency to oversee thousands of families in a state as populous and big as Illinois.

  13. - Wondering Wendy - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 12:53 pm:

    This has been going on way before Bruce Rauner came in. Every few years we hear these stories, and everyone chimes in, but I haven’t seen Democrats or Republicans DO anything about it. Talk is cheap, and this isn’t a partisan issue….both sides are equally at fault.

  14. - Oh Really? - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 1:04 pm:

    20 years ago, the guidance was to remove the children from the home. The result was thousands of kids in congregate care due to the lack of qualified foster homes and adoptive parents. The result… government makes for a bad parent. Mental illness and incarceration was the outcome for most of these kids. Flash forward to today. Family Preservation is the new strategy– which means keeping kids in abusive homes. Less costly for government. Possibly more stable for most kids. But some will die, like AJ. There is no political solution. If you want to fix this problem, sign up to be a foster parent or adoptive parent today and stop arguing about who is to blame D or R.

  15. - Three Dimensional Checkers - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 1:15 pm:

    I’d like to see if there is a risk score or algorithm DCFS could use to ensure they make objective determinations about removing a child from the parents.

  16. - NoGifts - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 1:43 pm:

    Three Dimension Checkers “Yes, but the algorithm is proprietary.” /s

  17. - Anon - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 1:45 pm:

    DCFS is a state agency. Like every other state agency it is run by political hacks that usually have no idea what they are doing and are bad bosses. The middle managers are there because they have been state employees for years and were promoted based off of their time in service. Most of them are bad bosses. Most of the cases workers have been so overworked they cut corners just to survive which unfortunately makes them bad state employees. So, We have bad bosses and bad employees but expect good results. I have been a state employee for over 30 years and have seen the same scenario play out over and over. Nothing will ever change until we remove the politics and hire and promote qualified individuals. We all know that this will never happen so be prepared to have the same conversation next week about DCFS or one of the states many other failed agencies.

  18. - Oh Really? - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 1:48 pm:

    @Three Dimensional Checkers– Yes, there is an algorithm, but… A company called “Mindshare” worked at DCFS for two years in 2016-2018. The data analysis indicated 98% of the DCFS caseload was “at risk for imminent harm or death” — the project was terminated for being ineffective. In short, you can’t automate or legislate out of the child abuse and neglect problem.

  19. - AlfondoGonz - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 2:57 pm:

    My job requires me to work with DCFS. I can speak of a single employee who even pretends to care. It does not surprise me, ever, when DCFS fails the children that they are supposed to protect, and those children are killed.

    It is, for my money, the worst run government agency in the state. By a wide margin.

  20. - Captain Obvious - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 3:12 pm:

    Anon @ 1:45 - Nail. On. Head. I see it every day. For confirmation see post about the “process” IDOT is putting a large employer through to get a traffic light.

Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.

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