When Victims Become the Accused

IMG_1441 - editedFor years, the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services was inadvertently setting a trap for parents who were victims of domestic violence. The scenario: a mother reports abuse for the sake of her family’s safety; in turn, rather than assisting with supportive services, DCFS makes a finding of neglect by the mother.

Under a vague environment injurious clause, DCFS made similar findings of child neglect for thousands of domestic violence victims. Fortunately, there was someone fighting for their rights: The Family Defense Center, one of the many great organizations you are supporting through the Investing in Justice Campaign. They challenged the matter in court through two class-action suits and nearly five years of litigation, and the outcome made their hard work well worth it. Nearly 20,000 parents in Illinois wrongfully labeled as child neglectors finally were able to clear their names at the beginning of this year.

Anyone, however, is a potential client; no one is immune from being brought into the child welfare system.
Such impactful legislative and policy work is the reason Diane Redleaf founded The Family Defense Center ten years ago. The executive director ran the Children’s Rights Project at LAF before going into private practice to do major child welfare litigation and setting her sights on making widespread change. With the mission of advocating for families in the child welfare system to receive justice, the Center defends wrongfully-accused family members and fights to keep families together. It is unique in the country for representing families before a decision has been made by the state. Moreover, the Center has established precedents and protections through a number of important cases, and its staff has received numerous awards for their advocacy.

My view of legal advocacy is that you can’t just represent individuals, but you have to do systemic work and policy work at the same time. Those are critical elements to reforming a bad system, Diane explained.

In many ways, the child welfare system is a system in need of much reform. According to Diane, DCFS often intervenes when it isn’t necessarily warranted, thus causing irreparable disruption in families’ lives. The system is quick to accuse and indicate instead of offer supportive services, which in the case of domestic violence, makes the situation more dangerous. This stirs a new conversation on a related issue: how to address the trauma that follows wrongful accusations and threats from the system. In order to minimize such risks, Diane would like to see the system scaled back to the point where it is only addressing serious abuse and serious neglect cases where a parent truly cannot care for a child.

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The Center also uncovered stereotypes that actually increase the risk of losing custody or being labeled an abuser or neglector. Called the gender-plus bias, it includes mothers who fall into any of the following categories: single, poor, a teenager, immigrant, victim of abuse, or suffering from a treatable mental condition. In an effort to raise awareness and eliminate the unfair treatment of such mothers, the Center created the Mother’s Defense Project. This project was spearheaded by staff attorney Melissa Staas, who is well known for her expertise in this area and received a CBF Sun-Times Public Interest Law Fellowship in 2010.

There is a lot to learn about the child welfare system, both for clients and lawyers. The Family Defense Center is a fundamental player in the area of state and regional legal training, and Diane noted that the Center will soon focus their efforts on educating parents through advocacy and empowerment programs.

There is public misunderstanding of what the system is and what the families are going through; there’s a lot of shame and stigma involved, Diane continued. Anyone, however, is a potential client; no one is immune from being brought into the child welfare system.