The parents I represented as a longtime legal services and civil rights lawyer never expected to find themselves on the wrong side of a child-abuse hotline call. Erroneous judgments, finding both guilt and innocence, issue at alarming rates, often without any court review.
The system has become a behemoth, with 7.4 million hotline calls in 2016 alone. Only a tiny fraction involves serious physical or sexual abuse — that’s the good news in these staggering numbers. With nearly 74 million children in America, hotline investigations affect huge numbers of children — and not in a good way. One study found that 53 percent of African-American children experienced a child abuse or neglect investigation at some point in their lives. Child abuse registers list millions of perpetrators, most of whom never had a day in court before their names were listed.
The system has gotten so massive it has started to swallow its own. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, foster parents and even child welfare workers are not immune from having their lives turned upside down by an erroneous hotline call, child protection investigation, and, too often, family separation at the hands of the child protection system (DCFS).
Child protection investigations put in sudden jeopardy parents’ rights to raise their children, even when the parents ultimately turn out to be entirely innocent of wrongdoing, as most are. It’s not a benign activity for police and child protective services to interrogate young children, as routinely occurs in child protection investigations. Intensive disruption in children’s and family life occurs. Of course, if children are truly abused, then an appropriate state response to protect them from harm at home or at the hands of caregivers is essential. Finding the right balance is tricky.
How cases can go terribly wrong when accused parents are innocent of wrongdoing, and what family defense lawyers do to help, are the subjects of my book, published in November, They Took the Kids Last Night: How the Child Protection System Puts Children at Risk. The book is based on six cases I handled as a Chicago-area public interest attorney and founder of the nonprofit Family Defense Center (from 2005 until 2017).
In the stories I tell, the same doctors and medical institutions that parents trusted to provide quality care for their children turned against them, labeling accidental injuries or unusual symptoms as due to abuse when other reasonable doctors disagreed. In several of the cases, the state-paid doctors never disclosed their hospital’s state contracts that, despite their employers’ role as treatment providers, turned them into prosecution witnesses. Such practices should raise serious ethical concerns.
While the parents were exonerated, the child protection system exacted a tremendous personal toll, in large part because of rules elevating suspicion over evidence. Policies that encourage “see something, say something” child abuse reporting have created a monster. Changes in policies to prevent child removals, narrowing abuse and neglect grounds to the most serious cases, eliminate rampant errors and afford basic due process, but have been slow in coming. The child protection and child welfare systems have always been the contentious and secretive stepchild of criminal and family law, affecting poor mothers of color most heavily.
Unless the system becomes fairer at the outset, our foster care system will continue to unnecessarily damage children whose parents can and should be given the opportunity to raise them.
Reading my book may not be a pleasant experience for any parent who values the sanctity of their family life, but it may be eye-opening. One Seattle-area reader recommended the book for its sometimes-terrifying insights into how the child protection system works, but in the same breath, she cautioned against reading it before bedtime.
Sometimes I wish, too, that I didn’t know how frightening the actions of child protective services can be for children and families. I am working toward a world in which families no longer need family defense lawyers to protect their rights to raise their children but, sadly, that world is not yet close at hand.
Diane L. Redleaf is a 31-year Oak Park resident, the mother of two adult sons and is married to Anatoly Libgober, emeritus mathematics professor at University of Illinois Chicago. To order her book, visit familydefenseconsulting.com/book.