Leaving children alone can come with lifelong consequences for Illinois families

Jeffrey Schwab

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

Jeffrey Schwab
July 2, 2015

Leaving children alone can come with lifelong consequences for Illinois families

One story shows how poorly written laws can cost responsible parents their livelihoods.

Alexander and Danielle Meitiv, the Maryland parents who allowed their two children, ages 6 and 10, to walk home from a nearby park together without parental supervision, were cleared on June 22 of the second set of neglect charges brought against them.

According to a Maryland Department of Human Resources spokesperson, “a child playing outside or walking unsupervised does not meet the criteria for a [Child Protective Services] response absent specific information supporting the conclusion that the child has been harmed or is at substantial risk of harm if they continue to be unsupervised.”

But what about parents in Illinois?

Does the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, or DCFS, agree that it should not investigate and register someone as a child neglector simply for letting her child play or walk outside without adult supervision? Sadly, the answer appears to be no.

Take Natasha, who in the summer of 2013 let her children – ages 5, 9 and 11 – play by themselves in a park adjacent to her apartment with their 9-year-old cousin. Natasha, along with the mother of the cousin and a third friend, were able to see the four children from an apartment window and checked on them every 10 minutes. The children were fine and had been playing for about 30 minutes when a preschool teacher came to the park with her class, assumed the children were completely unsupervised, and placed a hotline call to DCFS, unaware that the children’s mothers were nearby and checking on them regularly.

Natasha explained to DCFS that she could see the children from the window, that she was nearby in case there was a problem and that her 11-year-old was perfectly capable of looking after his younger brothers. This should have been as far at this story went.

Unfortunately, DCFS decided to issue an “indicated finding” – an official determination that credible evidence of abuse or neglect exists – against Natasha and the mother of the cousin for inadequate supervision.

According to Illinois law, for a parent to be “indicated” for inadequate supervision, a child must have been left “without supervision for an unreasonable period of time without regard for the mental or physical health, safety, or welfare of the minor.”

A policy in which the government “indicates” parents for allowing children ages 5, 9 and 11 to play within a visible distance of their home for inadequate supervision is far too harsh; strict application of it would result in thousands of parents being unnecessarily “indicated.” Of course, the government doesn’t “indicate” most parents who do this sort of thing; instead, it targets an unlucky few, which makes this policy even more disturbing.

If a parent is “indicated” for abuse or neglect of a child, the government puts his or her name on a registry. As a result, the parent would fail any background check if he or she applied for a job that involved working with children. That means teachers, day care workers and social workers could all lose their jobs, or people looking for work in these areas would not find it.

Indeed, Natasha was fired from her job in home health care because she was “indicated” and is unable to pursue her career as a licensed practical nurse working with children while she is on the registry.

Natasha has been fighting her case for almost two years. Fortunately, Natasha is being represented by the Family Defense Center, a nonprofit organization in Chicago that advocates for families treated unfairly by child protection agencies. Natasha’s case is currently before the appellate court, where the Family Defense Center filed a brief on her behalf on June 29.

Arbitrary application of laws like child neglect by DCFS tends to disproportionately affect single-parent families, immigrants and ethnic minorities. The vast majority of women the Family Defense Center assists in cases for expungement of an indicated finding are single mothers or have a partner who was not indicated, and almost all are ethnic minorities or immigrants.

Stigmatizing parents in a way that might cause them to lose their job or the prospect of a job only serves to harm their children. Doing so based on unfounded assumptions about a child or because of a disagreement with a reasonable decision a parent has made on how to raise a child only creates problems where none existed before.

The Meitiv’s case was national news. Natasha’s case should be too. DCFS should stop wasting taxpayer money on unnecessary investigations and administrative proceedings with findings “indicating” parents of neglect for inadequate supervision simply because their child was playing or walking outside unsupervised. Until then, almost all parents in Illinois are at risk of a DCFS investigation.

RELATED ARTICLE: Leave your 13-year-old home alone? Police can take her into custody under Illinois law

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