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Judge dismisses lawsuit against DCFS seeking reinstatement of in-person visitation during coronavirus pandemic

Since March, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services suspended supervised in-person visits between parents and children.

A Chicago office of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Caroline Moreland Tuesday dismissed the lawsuit filed by the public defender’s office on behalf of four mothers who said their rights to equal protection under the Constitution were being violated by the indefinite suspension of in-person visits with their children.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times files

Parents of children in protective custody lost a legal fight that sought to compel the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to reinstate in-person visitation during the coronavirus pandemic.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Caroline Moreland Tuesday dismissed the lawsuit filed by the public defender’s office on behalf of four mothers who said their rights to equal protection under the Constitution were being violated by the indefinite suspension of in-person visits with their children.

Moreland pointed in her ruling that all the plaintiffs had pending emergency motions in their individual cases to deal with visitation.

The court also sided with DCFS, saying the Child Protection Act allows state officials the right to immediately suspend the visits in the interest of a child’s health and well-being.

All four women have pending child abuse cases in the Juvenile Court’s Child Protection Division, according to court records.

DCFS, in March, stopped supervised in-person visits to prevent the spread of COVID-19, so those women and many others have only been allowed to speak with their children by phone or see them on video conferencing calls.

That setup has been hard on both parents and the children, advocates for the parents previously told the Chicago Sun-Times, stressing that many low-income parents with children in the system lack access to cellphones or data plans that would allow them to see their children.

The women, who sought action against DCFS, filed for an emergency injunction and temporary restraining order against the state agency in the Circuit Court’s Chancery Division in May.

DCFS and the Cook County public guardian responded by filing a motion to dismiss the suit.

The suit argued that the separation between children and their parents can lead to aggression and depression in older children, and the feeling of abandonment can lead to developmental delays in younger children.

Advocates for the parents were disappointed with Moreland’s ruling. They noted that on Monday, Judge Patricia Martin, who presides over the Child Protective Division, postponed all pending cases until June, which means the four mothers and others will have to wait another month to have their visitation hearings addressed.

“Instead of holding DCFS to its legal and moral responsibility to make efforts to facilitate safe visits, the Court’s ruling showed a clear preference for prioritizing what is convenient and expedient for DCFS as opposed to what is most dear and essential to families and communities,” the Shriver Center on Poverty Law said in a statement.

Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli said her office was considering an appeal of the decision.

“I am disappointed with the Court’s ruling today denying parents visitation with their children,” Campanelli said in an emailed statement. “For the past two and a half months, parents, children, and siblings have been denied their right to see each other. To deny them visitation is to deny them basic human dignity and will have serious lasting impacts on families. This decision is contrary to the law and common sense.”

DCFS spokesman Jassen Strokosch on Tuesday said the agency will continue to adapt its approach to visitations to respond to “the ever-changing nature of this crisis.”

“Working closely with our partners in the child welfare system across Illinois, we made rapid adjustments to our system of care, including visitations, to balance the need of reducing the spread [of] COVID-19 with the need to ensure the well-being of the children and families we serve,” he said.