Guilty Until Proven Innocent: A Recurring Story

Springfield, IL–The Belleville News-Democrat in Illinois reports that the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) “wrongly placed more than 3,000 people on the State”s official list of child abusers over a five year period…’

Why should the family court reform movement care about what happens to child abusers? After all, a lot of these parents are less-then-perfect, and they probably did something wrong, you say.

The reason we care is that non-custodial parents are often up against the same problems as men and women falsely accused of child abuse: arrogant, self-righteous government officials who have been given too much power and are accountable to no one.

Listen to the complaints of the victims and their attorneys and you will hear a familiar echo.

Nick Brunstein, one falsely accused foster parent said of child abuse investigators, “…the bad ones have the power of God and with the stroke of a pen they can ruin your life.’ Sounds pretty much like a GAL or a family court judge doesn”t it?

Diane Redleaf, executive director of the non-profit Family Defense Center in Chicago said, “We see so many cases where the basic rules are being ignored completely by the state investigators.’ This too has a familiar ring.

Chicago attorney Robert Lehrer said, “They [the accused parents] can”t afford a lawyer and don”t believe they have a chance.’ So most give up and back down. Sound familiar?

Although Brunstein and his wife eventually won in court, he 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.’ Hundreds of our members could say the same thing about family court.

What is the attitude of the DCFS when confronted with over 3,000 mistakes they made? Spokesman Kendall Marlowe “acknowledged that mistakes are made, but he said the vast majority of people… were placed there properly… he declined further comment.’

The DCFS chief administrative law judge Meryl Paniak said “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.’

Not a hint of apology, not a whiff of promise to a better job. In one word, arrogant.

DCFS hearings are closed to the public. They admit hearsay evidence. The decisions of their judges are not open to the public. They cannot be sued for mistakes, even when the mistakes are egregious, or downright malicious. The legal standard to which they are held is ridiculously low: the DCFS makes its decisions based only on “credible evidence.’ In other words, the judges can do pretty much whatever they feel like.

Basically, they are secret courts. Secret courts breed corruption no matter how lofty their reasons sound for being secret. The secret legal proceedings at Guantanamo have caused an uproar, but where is the uproar over the hundreds of thousands of secret proceedings in family court and in child abuse cases?

Sooner or later, this movement is going to have to take on the widespread abuses of the child protective services.

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