Academic journal article Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy

The Myth of the Ever-Watchful Eye: The Inadequacy of Child Neglect Statutes in Illinois and Other States

Academic journal article Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy

The Myth of the Ever-Watchful Eye: The Inadequacy of Child Neglect Statutes in Illinois and Other States

Article excerpt

Introduction

It was a warm July afternoon when Natasha Felix let her three sons-ages five, nine, and eleven-play outside with their nine-year-old cousin in the neighborhood park adjacent to their apartment.1 The children only spent about thirty minutes at the park and Natasha checked up on them every ten minutes from the apartment window.2 Natasha and other neighborhood mothers were grateful that they could let their children play and release their energy at a park so close to home.3 The children were playing happily when a preschool teacher visited the park with her class and assumed they were completely unsupervised.4 Instead of asking the children if they were alright or if an adult knew where they were, she left the park with her class and called the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) hotline.5

DCFS investigated and eventually indicted Natasha for neglect under DCFS's Allegation 74 for "Inadequate Supervision." DCFS issued a citation indicating that two of the children had ADHD, the youngest child was five-years-old, and Natasha did not know that the children were running into the street with a scooter.6 Although Natasha immediately appealed DCFS's decision with the help of a pro bono attorney and the Family Defense Center (FDC),7 the court affirmed its decision.8 The FDC appealed the case to the Illinois Appellate Court. Nearly two years later, with the help of legal advocacy along with attention from both local and national news outlets, DCFS finally reversed its decision in Natasha's case and cleared her name.9

In the Illinois Administrative Code's Allegation 74, inadequate supervision occurs "when a child is placed at a real, significant and imminent risk of likely harm due to a parent or caregiver's blatant disregard of parental or caregiver responsibilities of care and support, including supervision."10 Natasha is only one of many parents who have been unfairly targeted, investigated, and punished under Allegation 74.11 Moreover, the effects of Allegation 74 are not an isolated phenomenon, but are rather representative of a nationwide issue of overbroad, vague, and misapplied state child neglect statutes. To ameliorate the problematic effects of Allegation 74 on Illinois residents, DCFS should revise Allegation 74's language to be specific and narrowly tailored. Furthermore, while all parents who are unfairly targeted by problematic child neglect laws deserve to have their stories heard, white, middle-class, and self-declared "free-range" parents are the archetype often portrayed as most affected by these laws.12 Narrowing the language of Allegation 74 will not only help "free-range" parents, but also will mitigate the inequitable effects on minority parents in low-income neighborhoods.

To understand the development of child welfare laws, Part I of this Note briefly overviews the history and constitutional foundations of parental rights in the United States. To demonstrate the influences on problematic neglect statutes, this Part also includes a survey of federal and state child neglect statutes across the country, starting with the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 (CAPTA) and how it promoted issues of vagueness and overbreadth in certain state statutes. Part II overviews the origins and history of Allegation 74 in Illinois, while also discussing the problems with DCFS and its investigation process. This Part also discusses the effects Allegation 74 has on Illinois families. Finally, Part III analyzes the policy implications of the overbroad application of Allegation 74 and proposes changes to address them. Particularly, it discusses how lower-income and minority families are more likely to be targeted and affected by neglect laws, including Allegation 74, and how "free-range" parents-while also subjected to overbroad applications of these laws-should not be the focus of outcry for this issue. Rather, the focus should be on the minority and lowerincome families who have fewer resources to fight these unwarranted claims. …

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