State agency investigates Illinois mom for letting 8-year-old walk dog around block

Jeffrey Schwab

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

Jeffrey Schwab
August 23, 2018

State agency investigates Illinois mom for letting 8-year-old walk dog around block

A Wilmette mother investigated for letting her daughter walk the dog is only the latest target of Illinois’ vague and overreaching child neglect laws.

Owning a pet comes with its responsibilities. But with Illinois’ hazy child welfare laws, carrying out those responsibilities can earn some families a visit from state and local authorities.

That’s what happened to Corey Widen, a Wilmette mother of two, who became the subject of a recent investigation after allowing her 8-year-old daughter to take her dog for a lap around the block without supervision.

Responding to an anonymous call, according to the Chicago Tribune, Wilmette police visited Widen’s residence Aug. 2. Local authorities concluded she’d done nothing wrong, but state officials determined the event may have amounted to neglect. And the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, or DFCS, opened an investigation into whether Widen had been guilty of parental neglect.

Widen told the Tribune that her daughter, who is home-schooled, had never been put in harm’s way, and that most of the family’s block can be seen from their front windows. Only when walking the family dog is the 8-year-old allowed to be temporarily out of view, she said, telling the Tribune, “the funny thing is…I’m a joke with my friends because my kids are around me all the time.”

Illinois has some of the strictest child neglect laws in the nation – many that defy common sense. Illinois law, for example, provides that any minor under the age of 14 whose parent leaves him or her without supervision “for an unreasonable period of time without regard for the mental or physical health, safety, or welfare of that minor” is neglected. But the law provides parents with no guidance on what an “unreasonable period of time” is or what constitutes disregard for the “mental or physical health, safety or welfare” of a child.

In other words, parents don’t know if leaving a 13-year-old home alone after school is neglect or not.

Not alone

Unfortunately, in Illinois, it’s hardly uncommon for families to find themselves the subject of DFCS investigations springing from ordinary and innocuous actions. Take the case of Natasha Felix, who in July 2013 allowed her three sons – aged 11, 9 and 5 – to play at a local park next door to their apartment. Felix had been watching her children from their apartment window, but a concerned passerby contacted DFCS, and the agency found the Chicago mom at fault for “inadequate supervision.”

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.” Prior to May 9, 2017, Allegation No. 74 stated that a parent or caretaker could be indicated as a child neglector any time “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 …” This overbroad definition resulted in DCFS indicating many parents who were not neglecting their children. The consequences of being indicated as a child neglector can be life-altering, disqualifying them from certain types of employment or – as was the case with Felix – from volunteer opportunities.

The Family Defense Center, a Chicago-based nonprofit, filed a class action lawsuit in 2016 against DCFS on behalf of thousands of parents charged under Allegation No. 74. And in May 2017, the agency changed that rule. The new rule states that inadequate supervision “occurs when a child is placed at a real, significant and imminent risk of likely harm due to a parent’s or caregiver’s blatant disregard of parental or caregiver responsibilities of care and support, including supervision.”

‘You just don’t know’

Under the new rules, why Widen was investigated at all is a serious question. A DCFS spokesperson defended the investigation, telling the Tribune it was warranted “because you just don’t know.” But under that view, every Illinois parent warrants investigation because DCFS “doesn’t know” exactly what’s going on.

At issue is what constitutes sufficient evidence for DCFS to start an investigation in the first place. What about an 8-year-old walking a dog around her own neighborhood indicates “real, significant and imminent risk of likely harm”? Is allowing an 8-year-old to walk the dog a “blatant disregard of parental or caregiver responsibilities of care”?

Clearly the answer is no. So why was the investigation necessary?

Conducting an investigation is not without its costs to the family being investigated. As Widen recounts, the two-week investigation caused her entire family stress after DCFS investigators visited her home, and talked to her children, other family members and their pediatrician.

Simply seeing a child without his or her parents should not be enough evidence to support an investigation. If it were, parents in Illinois would constantly have to defend their parenting decisions from the government. Not only does this constitute an invasion of privacy, but it also is a waste of resources.

When the government passes overly broad laws or regulations, which result in fragmented enforcement, Illinoisans should worry about the result of that enforcement. The victims of the over-enforcement of these neglect laws tend to be mothers, not fathers.

State lawmakers should re-examine provisions in the state’s child neglect laws and agency rules to ensure resources are devoted to protecting children from real abuse. Laws that punish defensible parental behavior don’t protect victims – they create new ones.

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