Illinois wonders, “Who gets the kids?”
May 20, 1993
In 1993 Governor Edgar proposed yet another law to save Illinois’s dependent children from the people trusted to care for them, this one by directing 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 to 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. The reputation of the agency is at stake too, and that no doubt has led to many preemptive separations; kids taken unnecessarily from their families may suffer all manner of trauma as a result, but unhappy kids don't make the headlines, only dead and tortured ones.
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 welfare policymakers assumed that family failure was an individual (or ethnic or racial, in the case of outcast groups) failure rather than a social one. As reported by historian Joan Gittens in her excellent new book, Poor Relations (University of Illinois Press, due out next January), Illinois women who pleaded for admission to the poor-house were expected until well into the twentieth century to give up their rights to their children.
The obverse notion—that family woes reflect societal problems— became a commonplace among mainstream sociologists and social service professionals in the 1960s. The law similarly shifted in its opinion of whether the father or mother was the "natural" parent, although it continued to favor either one over non-biological guardians except in cases where the former's unfitness was flagrant.
The result is chronic muddle. DCFS policy has been to keep siblings in foster or adoptive homes together whenever possible. But the Illinois Appellate Court last year 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; the Cook County Public Guardian, who represented the children 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—and thus the criminality of parents—thus 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 official "neglect" results from simple poverty or some temporary predicament such as eviction. (A suit by the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago alleged that DCFS was 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.) A system that fails to dependably distinguish between mess and murder is not a system that even Illinoisans can be proud of. ●