There has been a child welfare system crisis every decade in Illinois since the 1970s. The current focus on what ails the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is, at last, about the kids, not their presumably awful parents. That’s fortunate, because the only way to change the child welfare system, including its understaffed, yet expensive, residential care component, is to stop blaming the parents and start working with them constructively to keep families together.OPINION
As policymakers debate what to do about DCFS and the governor gives marching orders for system reform to the eighth director in three years, it is important they accept three propositions:* First, the only “good” child welfare system is a small system that can deliver on its promises to the children who genuinely cannot be cared for at home.* Second, the only way to design a small child welfare system is to stop labeling minor parenting infractions and family living conditions, such as being poor, as abuse or neglect.* Third, it’s important to hear from families who have experienced child welfare system intervention. It is impossible to fix a system if the decision-makers don’t know what components are broken. That includes the multiple dysfunctional ways DCFS investigators and caseworkers intervene with families.The system should never take a child from a loving, non-offending parent. Our own caseloads at the Family Defense Center, unfortunately, are replete with cases where DCFS has intervened against a good parent. We recently represented a domestic violence victim who was fleeing her abuser with her kids. She was told by a DCFS investigator she couldn’t remain in the home where she sought refuge because it smelled of — but actually did not have — mold. The state placed her children with her attacker’s family, and let him be present during visits with her children. DCFS intervention made children less safe.Zero tolerance policies against less-than-ideal parenting are in conflict with efforts to create a genuinely humane child welfare system. These same zero tolerance policies led to the explosive overuse of the illegal “environment injurious” standard that DCFS used to erroneously label over 19,000 parents neglectful. As a result, DCFS resources needed to care for children who genuinely need to be removed from the home have been squandered.The road map for DCFS reform is neither complex nor expensive, but it requires an understanding of the nuances of parenting that DCFS has never applied. The child welfare system needs to figure out which parents are truly dangerous to their children. Once it succeeds at curtailing intrusive child welfare intervention at the vaguest hint of a risk to a child, it needs to make sure that the children with truly dangerous parents are given the chance to be raised by family members who want them. Only after family ties are exhausted should a child ever be sent to live in foster care, or a group home.To genuinely reform DCFS, the agency must be prepared to adopt a mission that will be hard for the public, the pundits and the politician to accept: stop blaming the parents. When the child welfare system stops wasting its resources on its institutionalized parent-bashing agenda, it might be able to spare a few dollars to staff its stretched residential care system and protect the children who genuinely can’t be cared for anywhere else.Diane L. Redleaf is founder and executive director of the Chicago-based Family Defense Center.