4 reforms to prevent abuse of discretion in child-welfare system

Jeffrey Schwab

Jeffrey Schwab is a senior attorney with the Liberty Justice Center.

Jeffrey Schwab
August 8, 2015

4 reforms to prevent abuse of discretion in child-welfare system

Child-welfare system reforms proposed in a new report from the Family Defense Center would prevent unjust findings of inadequate supervision.

In Illinois, many parents have been charged with child neglect for reasonable, everyday decisions, such as allowing their children to walk to parks independently or play outside. Too often, the Department of Children and Family Services, or DCFS, oversteps its authority and intervenes unnecessarily in families’ lives. The results of this are frequently disastrous for these families.

According to a new report by the Family Defense Center, individual cases and research suggest that the child-welfare system does not accurately differentiate cases that involve real dangers to children from those that involve reasonable parenting decisions. The discretion DCFS has to investigate reports of inadequate supervision and to interpret evidence from its investigations is so broad that child-abuse reporters, parents, judges and policymakers are unable to clearly and consistently distinguish reasonable parenting from child neglect.

The report discusses several cases in which individuals were “indicated” for inadequate supervision, meaning that findings of child neglect were entered against them. One example is Natasha, an Illinois mother who let her children play at a park next to her apartment where she could see them from the window of her home. In another case, a mother was “indicated” when she and her husband, who lived in a closely knit Orthodox Jewish community, allowed their 9-year-old daughter to walk to a nearby park before dark with her 1½-year-old sister. The 9-year-old was responsible and knew neighbors along the way. Despite the fact that this decision had been made jointly by both parents, only the mother was “indicated.”

Being wrongfully investigated and indicated for inadequate supervision is devastating to families. Child-welfare investigations cause an enormous amount of distress in a family’s life, and can make raising children even more difficult and costly for parents. Parents face a potential loss of employment, added stress from investigations and proceedings and potential legal fees. Moreover, being “indicated,” and thus listed on the state’s child-abuse registry means that a person cannot work with children, volunteer at his or her child’s school or go on school field trips.

DCFS investigations into inadequate-supervision cases should focus on the actual likelihood of harm to an unsupervised child rather than on investigators’ personal parenting philosophies and preferences. Investigations are appropriate when a child is at serious risk of harm due to potentially provable neglect or abuse. There is no justification for arbitrary evaluations of child neglect when there is no clear risk of harm. Unnecessary inadequate-supervision cases divert inordinate resources and staff time to investigations in which the actual risk of harm to children is virtually nil. Indeed, crime rates have dropped substantially in the past several decades, and child-development research now supports the promotion of self-sufficiency and responsibility in children.

The Family Defense Center report provides four policy recommendations that would discourage the abuse of discretion in inadequate supervision cases.

  1. Establish a presumptive age at which children can be left alone, with straightforward guidelines and training to teach investigators how to determine when a child is not sufficiently mature to be left alone. The report recommends that children ages 10 and older should be presumed capable of being left alone as long as it’s not overnight. A specific age presumption would give parents clear guidance, and the number of inadequate-supervision investigations would be significantly reduced.

For children younger than 10, investigations may or may not be warranted, but there should not be a per se rule against leaving younger children alone. DCFS should be required to show a likelihood of harm to the child and a blatant disregard by the parent of obvious danger. A finding of “blatant disregard” would require evidence that the parent failed to take reasonable precautionary measures to protect the child.

  1. Provide additional procedural steps for investigations. Investigators should be required to document each of the factors set forth in DCFS regulations to establish neglect.
  1. Provide clear guidelines and training for investigators regarding determining the likelihood of harm to the child as a result of inadequate supervision. An investigation should include evidence of a clear likelihood of harm to the child arising from that particular situation, such as evidence of danger in the locale where the child was left alone.
  1. Provide alternative interventions in response to families’ needs. The social service referrals DCFS provides to families being investigated for inadequate supervision often do not address the family’s problems with domestic violence, substance abuse, lack of child care, or any of the other conditions that families accused of inadequate supervision often face. As a result, as it currently stands, an investigation and indication for child neglect does not solve the original difficulties that spurred the investigation.

These policy changes would result in a more efficient child-welfare system by allowing resources to be devoted to investigations of serious cases of neglect and abuse and would prevent the serious harm that is inflicted on innocent families when parents make reasonable, responsible parenting decisions.

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