State drops child-neglect citation for mother who let her kids play outside

Jeffrey Schwab

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

Jeffrey Schwab
December 21, 2015

State drops child-neglect citation for mother who let her kids play outside

An inadequate-supervision case recently dropped by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services reveals why the department must reform its policies regarding what constitutes child neglect.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, or DCFS, has dropped its finding of child neglect against an Illinois mother who let her children – ages 5, 9 and 11 – play outside in a park next to their home. In 2013, DCFS entered an “indicated finding” for inadequate supervision against the mother, Natasha, even though she could see her children from her apartment window and checked on them every 10 minutes.

After over two years of fighting in court, DCFS has dropped the finding against Natasha and, pursuant to a court order entered Dec. 11, expunged her record. DCFS spokesman Andrew Flach reported that DCFS Acting Director George Sheldon, who was appointed by Gov. Bruce Rauner earlier this year, “will be taking a closer look at similar cases to ensure that we allow caretakers to be prudent parents and considering changes to Department rules and procedures,” according to the Chicago Tribune.

This is great news both for Natasha and for Illinois parents. The “inadequate supervision” rule adopted by DCFS is problematic. For example, it provides 21 factors for investigators to consider when looking into an allegation – such as the age and mental development of the child, frequency of occurrence, duration of the time the child is left unattended and time of day – but doesn’t provide any guidance on how to weigh these factors. The rule also gives great discretion to investigators to apply the factors, leading to a disparity in outcomes.

As the Family Defense Center – a nonprofit organization in Chicago that advocates for families treated unfairly by child protection agencies and which represented Natasha in this case – points out, the state disproportionately indicates for inadequate supervision those with little power or privilege: poor people, minorities, immigrants and women.

Now that DCFS has recognized that its regulation is problematic, it should consider changes that would better serve Illinois parents and children. The Family Defense Center provides four policies DCFS could adopt:

  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.
  1. Provide additional procedural steps for investigations.
  1. Provide clear guidelines and training for investigators regarding determining the likelihood of harm to the child as a result of inadequate supervision.
  1. Provide alternative interventions in response to families’ needs.

All parents have to make decisions about when and whether to leave their children alone based on different factors, including values, need, and the children’s abilities and maturity levels. Parents have the right to transmit their own values to their children, and parents – not government workers – are the best people to determine their own children’s abilities and maturity levels. Furthermore, parents who have to make decisions based on need or due to lack of resources shouldn’t be punished or have their relationships with their children disrupted by the state. These reforms would go a long way toward respecting parental choice, children’s abilities and the needs of parents.

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