A new approach to child well-being challenges the definition of neglect


When a hotline call arrives at a child welfare agency, the odds of an allegation of negligence are four times greater than the odds of a claim alleging physical abuse.

Childcare experts have raised questions about the hundreds of thousands of minors who are reported to be victims of abuse each year in the United States, particularly those cases in which the consequences of poverty may wane with the definition of neglect. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services uses two categories—abuse and neglect—to help determine if a family meets the criteria for state intervention.

Of the 618,000 children who were confirmed victims of abuse and neglect in 2019, 76.1% were classified as cases of neglect, according to the 2020 Child Abuse Report from the US Department of Health and Human Services. The rate of physical abuse was 16.5% of cases. 9.4% were sexually abused and 0.2% were victims of sex trafficking, according to the federal report.

Heidi Dahlenberg, an ACLU attorney dealing with a pending federal lawsuit against DCFS, has said sometimes what appears to be neglect is actually a poverty-stricken family.


“It is well known that child care agencies do a good job of identifying abuse but not so good of identifying neglect. We need better support for parents who are at the poverty level,” Dalenberg said.

The ACLU attorney said that parents who are forced to work long hours to make ends meet may become the target of allegations of neglect, when what they need is help with childcare, housing and other necessities.

Nancy Buckner, Alabama Commissioner of Human Resources Management.

Last year, former DCFS Director Jes MacDonald commented that struggling families need three basics to survive: housing, food and clothing for their children. When commissioned reporters notice that children lack these necessities, they often turn to childcare, he said.

Professionals, including teachers, police and medical personnel, provided 66.7% of 2020 reports of alleged neglect and abuse, according to the Federal Child Care Report. The reports included information on 1,480 child deaths and more than 1,000 allegations of negligence that may be a factor.

Each state sets its own definitions of abuse and neglect and sets a limit on when a child must be removed from the home. In Alabama, the Human Resource Management Policy Manual contains a section devoted to how case workers deal with poverty issues.

“Poverty is absolutely no reason to bring a child into foster care. There is no reason to keep a child in foster care,” said Nancy Buckner, commissioner for the Alabama Department of Human Resources. In order to handle issues such as housing, transportation or late court fines.

“We house the whole family, in its entirety, and in an effort to keep the family together. That’s what a good child care system should do. The leader of the Alabama agency that oversees 5,800 children in state foster care should be the last resort and should include Always safe for children.”

Families need individualized service plans tailored to their needs, Buchner said, adding that input from caregivers can make the difference between success and failure.

New family treatment court

In McLean County, the New Family Therapy Court can help families with multiple problems by bringing together a group of social service agencies into one courtroom.

Associate Justice Amy MacFarland leads the family division of the 11th Judicial District and serves as president of the Recovery Court, a specialized court for defendants with mental illness. MacFarland is overseeing work for the planning grant to determine if family court is appropriate for the five-district judicial district.

Judge Amy McFarland
Associate Justice Amy MacFarland leads the family division of the Eleventh Circuit.

Part of the research for the court project involves collecting data from family, juvenile, abuse and neglect cases. MacFarland said getting to the root cause of people’s involvement in the court system is something the court team will explore.

“I think we’re seeing more mental health and substance abuse issues in all of our courtrooms. I think if the data is explored and you go to the roots of criminal activity, you can trace that back to the family courts, juvenile courts, neglect and abuse, and the people who were part of the judicial system Somewhere since they were young, MacFarland said.

Unlike other problem-solving courts that have the power to punish defendants with imprisonment, a family court would be a civil court with a different set of possible penalties.

“If you don’t pass the program, it could potentially be a termination of parental rights,” MacFarland said, or the loss of parenting time with the children.

The idea for family court came to MacFarland because she noted the ramifications of procedures in mental health and family courts where children often suffer the consequences of adults’ decisions.

McFarland remembers asking herself a series of questions: “What can I do as a divorce or family judge? What can I do earlier?” And in cases involving mental health or substance abuse issues, “Is there help that can be given to these people?” children?”

Currently, the only other family treatment court is located in Lake County. Planning grant funding will come from the Center for the Future of Children and the Family and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. The planning process is expected to last for a year, with a decision on the program sometimes made after October 2023.

New court partners could include public health, mental health and substance agencies, DCFS and other child care advocates. MacFarland said the court would respond to this expertise.

“It’s not the court’s role to become social workers, but the court brings with it some power and accountability. I think there is a difference when the court is there that provides accountability, and there is more success in getting basic needs, and tackling substance abuse,” the judge said.

The goal of a family-centered court is to identify problems that have brought child care workers to the family and to connect parents with services that will allow them to succeed. MacFarland is looking to bring the same kind of positive results seen in restitution court to the family courtroom.

“I see all these people who have children and have no interaction with them and are not paying child support. As they go through the program, we get them help to start paying child support and they start seeing their children. All of a sudden, you see them so invested in their recovery and the kids are having a relationship with their parents,” the judge said. .

MacFarland said the council’s efforts could get families back on track, and provide “results of unity and assistance earlier than taking to criminal courtrooms and trying to address matters when we are likely to be about to go to jail.”

Coming Wednesday: Illinois policymakers discuss challenges facing the state’s child care system.