Settlement deal helps prevent parents’ nightmares from coming true

Settlement deal helps prevent parents’ nightmares from coming true

Vague, arbitrary and overly protective rules, like we see often in Illinois, don’t do anyone any favors.

When do you leave your children alone?

It’s a deeply personal decision that reflects family values, circumstance and a child’s unique personality. But if state government gets involved in the wrong place at the wrong time, that decision can ruin parents’ lives. And potentially their child’s, too.

Thankfully, a recent class-action lawsuit resulted in a settlement agreement that could bring some solace to Illinois parents.

One Chicago mom, Natasha Felix, made the decision in July 2013 to let her three sons, ages 11, 9 and 5, along with their 9-year-old cousin, play at a local park next door to their apartment.

The eldest was responsible. And all the children were perfectly fine. Felix even checked on them every 10 minutes from her kitchen window. But a passerby called the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

DCFS has a book of rules that sorts different types of child abuse or neglect by the type of allegation. Allegation No. 74 is called “inadequate supervision.” Although Felix’s children were not taken from her, she became a neglectful parent in the eyes of the state due to the department’s finding of her “inadequate supervision” that day. This scarlet letter prevented her from volunteering at her children’s school and blocked needed job opportunities.

Short of harm to her children, can you imagine a worse fate for a mother than being wrongfully pegged as a child abuser?

For more than two years, thanks to the help of the nonprofit Family Defense Center, Felix fought the finding. And in 2015, she rightfully had her name removed from the state’s registry.

But Felix was not alone. As it turns out, the department’s “inadequate supervision” allegations can be extremely vague. A parent could have been flagged as a neglector under Allegation No. 74 if “a child is placed in a situation or circumstances that are likely to require judgment or actions greater than the child’s level of maturity…”

But who should decide what situations are within the child’s maturity level – the state or the parent? Plenty of parents think challenging their kids in situations slightly outside their comfort zone is the best way for them to learn.

Also important to note: Rules with plenty of wiggle room tend to work against the least powerful among us.

That’s why in 2016, the Family Defense Center filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of parents whacked with child neglect under that rule. And in May 2017, the department changed it. Investigators now must find that a child was placed “at a real, significant and imminent risk of likely harm” because of a parent’s “blatant disregard of … responsibilities of care and support.”

And this summer, the Family Defense Center and DCFS finally reached a settlement.

The department will allow thousands of moms and dads who were flagged because of “inadequate supervision” to request a special review of their case. If the charge wouldn’t pass muster under the new, better standards for what constitutes neglect, their name will be removed from the list.

“This settlement brings relief to thousands of families who were unfairly labeled neglectful,” Family Defense Center Executive Director Rachel O’Konis Ruttenberg said. “Hopefully this will help DCFS focus on the families who truly need help.”

There is still much more work to be done.

For example, any parents who leave their children age 13 or younger home alone might be guilty of neglect under Illinois state law – the strictest law of its kind in the nation. Only a handful of other states have a minimum age for leaving children home alone. Three states set the minimum age at 12 for leaving children home alone, another three states set the minimum age at 8 and Kansas lists the minimum age at 6. At least 30 states have no minimum age for when a child can be left home alone.

Illinois lawmakers may have passed this measure and others like it with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, they result in far more stories like Felix’s.

It’s in the best interest of all Illinois children that likelihood of real harm – not just investigators’ personal parenting preferences – drives decision-making from lawmakers and DCFS.

Vague, arbitrary and overly protective rules, like we see often in Illinois, don’t do anyone any favors.

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