Julie Q – a Constitutional Check on the Illinois DCFS’ Authority

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is charged with investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect. DCFS workers are notified of alleged child abuse and neglect and depending on the circumstances, investigate the allegations.

 

DCFS has promulgated administrative rules for conducting investigations and has devised a list of allegations comprised of behavior that constitutes abuse or neglect. If DCFS decides that there is not enough evidence to support the allegation, the allegation is deemed “unfounded.” If DCFS finds that the allegation is credible, DCFS makes an “indicated finding” against the perpetrator.

 

When DCFS makes an indicated finding against an individual, they essentially find that that person is “guilty” of child abuse or neglect. If that finding is appealed, DCFS bears the burden of proving that the evidence available to the caseworker at the time the finding was made supports the ultimate conclusion.

 

In a 2013 case, Julie Q. v. DCFS, the Illinois Supreme Court found that the requirements for a specific allegation were unconstitutional. Specifically the court held that a finding that Julie Q. neglected her child was properly reversed because the legislature had removed language regarding “injurious environment” from the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act in 1980, and the language was not restored until 2012.

 

In this case, Julie Q. was indicated under Allegation 10/60, which is an allegation that an individual has engaged in behavior creating a substantial risk of physical injury or an environment injurious to the health and welfare of a child. Julie Q. had allegedly been drinking in her home and had locked her child in her room, preventing her from making telephone calls.

 

Julie Q. appealed the indicated finding, and DCFS argued that it had the statutory authority to promulgate Allegation 60 because the governing Act gave DCFS express authority to define neglect of a child using environment injurious language. Julie Q. argued that DCFS actually exceeded its statutory authority because the legislature removed language referencing “environment injurious” from the definition of neglect in the Act. In addition, Julie Q argued that the Administrative Law Judge broke certain evidence rules and violated due process by failing to render a finding within 90 days.

 

Overall, the Court reasoned that the legislature removed the definition of  “neglect” from the Act, and therefore, DCFS did not have the authority to write their own definition for it. Even though DCFS is an agency with a specific mission, DCFS exceeded the scope of its authority because its purpose and power are constrained by the governing statutes.

 

One of the major changes between the unconstitutional Allegation 60 requirements and the new requirements is the mental health factors to be considered. The new regulations state that “[a] parent’s or caregiver’s mental illness or behavior may qualify for an allegation of environment injurious if an incident or behavior that is symptomatic of the mental illness creates a real, significant, and imminent risk of moderate to severe harm to the child’s health, physical well-being, or welfare AND if the parent or caregiver has failed to exercise reasonable precautionary measures to prevent or mitigate the risk of harm to the child.” Further, the following factors are to be considered:

  • The child’s age;
  • The child’s medical condition, behavioral, mental or emotional problems, developmental disability or physical handicap, particularly relating to his or her ability to protect himself or herself
  • The severity of the occurrence
  • The frequency of the occurrence
  • The alleged perpetrator’s physical, mental and emotional abilities, particularly related to his or her ability to control his or her actions;
  • The dynamics of the relationship between the alleged perpetrator and the child
  • The alleged perpetrator’s access to the child
  • The previous history of indicated abuse or neglect
  • The current stresses or crisis in the home
  • The presence of other supporting persons in the home; or
  • The precautionary measures exercised by a parent or caregiver to protect the child from harm.

 

The mental health factors to be considered are arguably more vague than the old regulation, meaning that the new standard gives more discretion to DCFS caseworkers to indicate a parent under the mental health section of Allegation 10/60. However, the Court’s decision in Julie Q sets an important precedent – DCFS, while it may be considered to be the authority on child abuse and neglect, is still beholden to the legislature and the legal process.  DCFS, according to this decision, is not autonomous and does not have the legal authority to implement its own definitions regarding child abuse and neglect.

 

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