Mon May 12, 2008 4:20 pm
The Associated Press
BELLEVILLE, IL. --Nick and Judi Brunstein are former foster parents who spent $20,000 in legal fees to clear their names after being accused by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services of child abuse. But the Belleville couple still lost the three children they hoped to adopt.
The Brunsteins are among more than 3,000 people who, through an appeals process, succeeded in getting their names removed from an official state list of child abusers over a five-year period, according to an investigation by the Belleville News-Democrat.
"They're not all bad, there are good ones," Nick Brunstein said of state child abuse investigators, "but the bad ones have the power of God, and with the stroke of a pen they can ruin your life."
For a story published Sunday, the News-Democrat reviewed state child abuse records.
It found that more than 80,000 people were placed on the child abuse list - called the State Central Register - from Jan. 1, 2002, to Aug. 1, 2007. Of those, 11,473 people appealed, and 3,051 of those who appealed, or nearly 27 percent, won their appeals and had their names removed from the list or saw their cases tossed out due to lack of evidence.
Another 1,426 appeals were denied; 3,178 were abandoned or withdrawn by the accused; 3,289 cases were closed or dismissed through various administrative processes, and 529 appeals were pending.
Mistakes are made, said DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe. But he said the vast amount of people placed on the State Central Register are there properly, and that most remain on the list for the required minimum of five years. He declined further comment.
Child abuse investigations are based on a lower standard of proof, or "credible evidence." Winning an appeal does not necessarily mean that in every case there was no abuse or neglect.
"A lot of what happens at these hearings is it becomes a legal process, not ... whether it happened or not, but whether enough evidence is presented," said Meryl Paniak, the DCFS' chief administrative law judge.
Appeals hearings are closed to the public. The newspaper reviewed several copies of administrative law judges' decisions provided by parents who appealed, as well as talking to attorneys who regularly represent parents at such hearings.
Attorney Diane Redleaf, executive director of the nonprofit Family Defense Center in Chicago, said many child abuse investigations are unreliable and flawed.
"They're supposed to be thorough. They're supposed to be fair. They're supposed to follow their own rules. And in the majority of cases where we represent people, that's not what's happening," she said.
Supporters of the child welfare system say in cases where child abuse is suspected, caseworkers must always put protecting children first. In fact, caseworkers are bound by a legal mandate to protect children.
Jennifer Reich, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Denver, said incorrectly listing parents as child abusers is "terrible," but not because of malice on the part of DCFS investigators.
"All the social workers I saw in my own research were much more afraid of leaving a child in a home where they could be harmed than they were of falsely accusing a parent," she said.
In the Brunstein's case, they landed on the state's list of child abusers after an 11-year-old girl diagnosed as schizophrenic and bipolar accused the couple of physically and emotionally abusing her and two younger foster children in their home. The girl also complained the couple was too strict because the children were expected to do chores and their homework.
In granting the couple's appeal, DCFS administrative law judge Judy Heineken chastised DCFS caseworkers for presenting an abuse case dependent on the uncorroborated word of the 11-year-old.
Heineken said the agency's main witness, a psychologist, didn't know the girl was schizophrenic and bipolar because she never checked her medical files. And the judge noted neighbors, friends and school officials refuted the girl's accusations.
The Brunsteins recently got their foster care license back. But all three girls they hoped to adopt were permanently taken from them.
"I don't know if you can call this a win," Nick Brunstein said. "Our savings are wiped out, and our caseworker who wanted to take our foster kids and hurt us did exactly that. No one at DCFS will be held accountable."
Connecticut DCF Watch
Civil Rights Advocates For Families
P.O. Box 9775
Forestville, CT 06011-9775