Why the State of Illinois is a lousy parent
January 9, 1981
The real scandal of Illinois's chronic inattention to its dependent children is that it is so seldom a scandal.
Gov. Edgar has proposed another law that will save the children. Assuming it survives the General Assembly, henceforth Illinois' child welfare agencies will place the interests of abused and neglected children above those of their parents and of bureaucrats.
It has been observed that the prospect of a hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully, and indeed it does, especially when the hanging is done by three-year-old boys like Joseph Wallace and the concentrating is done by Illinois politicians. Wallace, you may still remember, is the boy who was murdered last April when his deranged mother hanged him from a doorway with a telephone cord. The boy had been returned—again—to her custody by a juvenile court judge solicitous of the integrity of one of the few institutions guilty of more mischief than even the courts—the American family.
We are entitled to be skeptical of the method of Mr. Edgar's initiative if not his motive. The agent he selected to enforce this new priority is the same court system that was an accessory to Joseph Wallace's murder. Child welfare experts have already made plain their opinion that Edgar's child-first policy will not solve the problem of bungled child abuse casework, forgetting perhaps that Edgar's child abuse problem and the experts' child abuse problem are very different. The experts' problem is how to reduce the incidence of abuse; the governor's problem is how to deflect the political blame for the state's failure to reduce the incidence of abuse.
For all the rhetoric about the sanctity of the family, the state is not at all reluctant to intervene in the lives of families reported to be mistreating their children. At present roughly 33,000 Illinois children are in some kind of substitute care after having been taken from their families; as recently as 1990 the number was 22,000.
Pressure to remove a child from a difficult home situation is almost irresistible. Illinois' Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act requires the agency to both protect the best interests of the child and to preserve family life for their benefit, but the law and agency practice assume that if the two goals are in conflict the preservation of the family must yield to the safety of the child. As the Citizens Council on Children noted in a 1988 report, doing both requires "delicate balance." But balance is hard to achieve in an environment in which the wrong decision ends up on the six o'clock news.
Illinois' honors the doctrine of parens patriae in the abstract but resists it in practice to such an extent that, were the state to police itself, it would have to be reported as a derelict parent. Neither meanness or incompetence per se is sufficient to explain Illinois' perpetually poor performance as a surrogate parent. Rather it is a profound ambivalence about the state's role.
Nineteenth-century policy assumed that family failure was an individual (or ethnic or racial, in the case of outcast groups) failure rather than a social one. Until well into the 20th century, women who pleaded for admission to the poorhouse—that era's AFDC—were expected to give up their rights to their children, who were placed in orphanages or placed for adoption. The obverse notion—that family woes reflect societal problems—became a commonplace among mainstream sociologists and social service professionals in the 1960s.
While the law shifted in its opinion of whether the father or mother was the "natural" parent, it continued to favor either one over non-biological guardians except in cases where the formers' unfitness was flagrant.
The result is a muddle. DCFS policy is to keep siblings in foster or adoptive homes together whenever possible. But the Illinois Appellate Court in February ruled that judges do not have to order prospective adoptive parents to allow visits by a child's birth parents or siblings as a condition of adopting that child. Public Guardian, who represented the children in the three cases involved, complained that to deny visitation to older children was not in the best interests of the child, as provided for under the state law.
The abuse of children is as much a phenomenon of legislative definition as it is of family dysfunction. In 1990 roughly 59 percent of reported instances of child maltreatment were for "neglect" of various kinds, mainly of children lacking supervision or health care or exposed to "environmental neglect" such as a dirty house. Often this "neglect" results from the simple poverty or temporary predicament of the family, such as eviction. A suit by the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago alleged that the agency is too eager to remove children in cases of neglect that, while meeting the legal definitions, pose no immediate threat to a child's health or safety. (DCFS is working under a federal consent order resulting from suit that obliges it in such case to help the whole family find emergency shelter rather than take the children away.) A system that fails to dependably distinguish between mess and murder is not a system that will satisfy even the low expectations of Illinoisans. ●