On the third day of her son’s life, Alicia Foster learned the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services was taking him away. She was still with him in the hospital when the call came on March 30. A few hours later, he was gone.
Since then, Foster has only seen him once, at the doctor’s office. She has seen her other four children, all of whom are in DCFS custody, just twice since March 25.
That’s when DCFS put in place a ban on in-person supervised visits, which has separated more than 11,200 parents from their children in state custody, according to DCFS data. The policy was intended to protect children and families from the coronavirus, but it did not end visits for the 1,500 parents who are allowed unsupervised visitation with their kids or restrict the activities of foster families.
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Foster sees her newborn for 15 minutes, once a week, over the videoconferencing app Zoom.
“It’s sad because you’ve got my newborn son, who has needs now, who needs nurturing, who needs attachment, in a system like this,” she said.
Beginning Friday, DCFS will allow in-person supervised visits every other week, with a plan to transition to regular, weekly visits in mid-July. But advocates, including Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli, seek an immediate end to the policy, which they say has already caused irreparable harm to parents and children.
Campanelli, whose office represents indigent parents in child welfare cases, sued DCFS on behalf of four parents over the visitation policy on May 6. Though the suit was defeated in chancery court, the public defender’s office is appealing the decision.
“I am fearful that there will be more delay in fully restoring these visits and am concerned that this long period without visits will have lasting impacts on all of these families,” said Aaron Goldstein, chief of the Public Defender’s office’s civil division, which handles these cases.
A DCFS spokesperson said that safe interactions between parents and children was a top priority.
“The department will continue to adapt and respond to the changing nature of this crisis, balancing the need to reduce the spread of COVID-19 with our deep commitment to protecting children and strengthening families,” spokesperson Deborah Lopez said in an emailed statement.
But the policy contradicted federal guidance, which strongly discouraged state child welfare agencies from issuing “blanket court orders reducing or suspending family time.” Whether it helped prevent the spread of the virus is unclear.
“Their policy doesn’t even make sense,” said Erin Miles Cloud, co-director of the Movement for Family Power, an advocacy group. “It wasn’t even that foster parents couldn’t have children around other children or family. It was simply taking children away from their biological families.”
Foster sees the visitation policy as just the latest example of racism in a child welfare system that targets Black families and whose primary tool, advocates said, is the separation of parents and children.
“The system fails our Black children,” Foster said.
Parallels to the criminal justice system
Black children make up 43 percent of youth under the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, according to state data, more than three times the Black population of the state. More than 70 percent of Cook County children in state custody are Black, while just 23 percent of the county’s population is Black.
DCFS has acknowledged that these disparities are the result of “implicit racial bias and structural racism,” according to a June 2019 report. The department made plans to examine its data through a “Racial Equity” and “Antiracist Lens” and to issue recommendations based on the analysis, according to the report. DCFS did not immediately respond when asked whether it had done so.
At a time when calls to defund the police have grown louder, some politicians and pundits have suggested replacing police officers with social workers in certain situations. Advocates say the child welfare system is a cautionary tale of a system replete with social workers that still disproportionately targets and harms Black families.
“Families and communities of color are criminalized [in the child welfare system] in much the same ways they are in the criminal system,” said Tanya Gassenheimer, a staff attorney for the Shriver Center on Poverty Law who works on child welfare issues. “It really is a one-for-one parallel.”
The similarities begin, she said, with disproportionate surveillance of low-income communities and communities of color by both law enforcement and child welfare systems. The State’s Attorney’s office represents DCFS in cases against parents, just as they represent the state in criminal court. Custody cases can be settled in a way that resembles a plea agreement, which Gassenheimer described as a “coercive tactic.”
Unlike the criminal system, however, parents under investigation for child abuse or neglect are not told of their right to an attorney the way police Mirandize arrestees. The burden of proof in child protection cases is ‘clear and convincing evidence,’ a lower threshold than the criminal standard that guilt must be established ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’
Despite this, parents often talk to DCFS social workers without a lawyer, not realizing that those conversations can lead to their child being removed from their home, Miles Cloud said.
Though separation can happen in days, reunification can take years.
Six years ago, Foster said, her mother-in-law called 911 because Foster’s oldest daughter, who was just six weeks old, was spasming. Tests revealed fractures and bleeding in her brain, Foster said. Doctors suspected shaken baby syndrome, Foster said, and DCFS took her away.
Foster said she herself was later diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which affects the body’s connective tissue. It is a hereditary condition and can present symptoms in children that can be mistaken for shaken baby syndrome, according to some studies. Foster has spent the past six years trying to prove that her oldest child was misdiagnosed.
In the meantime, the suspicion of abuse with her first daughter, combined with an X-ray that showed fractures in her second daughter, led DCFS to remove her second child from her home. Foster and her husband both deny ever abusing their children and they have never been identified as the perpetrator of child abuse, according to their attorney, Zachary Bravos. Though she tried to make custody arrangements with relatives before she gave birth to her third, fourth and fifth children, she was unsuccessful. DCFS took all of them within days after they were born, she said.
“It’s a bad system that does not work in the best interest of the child,” she said.
“We did nothing wrong”
Chelsea Joyce and her boyfriend Wilson Cuevas have not seen their nine-month-old son Wilson Jr. since the in-person visitation ban went into effect. Most mornings, they wake up crying, she said.
“That’s when it hurts the most,” she said. “Our son’s not with us and we did nothing wrong.”
She said Wilson was given a urine test at a routine doctor’s visit in February that came back positive for opioids, a result she called “impossible.” A blood test from the same day as the urine test later showed there were no opioids in his system, she said, but he had already been placed in foster care before the results came back. Because of the courts’ coronavirus scale-back, Joyce still has not been able to schedule a hearing before a judge to regain custody. She is one of the four plaintiffs suing to end the visitation policy.
Joyce sees her son for 30 minutes, three times a week, through a screen. He’s learning to crawl and starting to babble. She doesn’t know if he registers that she is there.
“It doesn’t feel like a visit,” she said. “We’re missing the milestones to watch him grow.”
Numerous studies say that forced parent-child separation can cause lasting anger, anxiety, and developmental delays in children.
Dr. Molly Witten, a clinical psychologist who studies the effects of trauma on child development, predicted the visitation ban, though temporary, would cause permanent damage.
“Infants and young children express separation as a traumatic experience,” Witten wrote in an affidavit in support of the mothers’ lawsuit. “Research has shown that even short-term separation from a parent lasting only a week can be associated with increased aggression and/or depression in older children.”
Experts said the in-person visitation ban could also affect parents’ ability to regain custody of their children.
“A critical aspect of getting your child back from foster care is maintaining a relationship with your child, showing you have a close bond with your child, showing you relate in a positive way with your child,” said Dorothy Roberts, a University of Pennsylvania law professor and leading child welfare abolitionist. “The way that that’s done is through visitation.”
Roberts said she was disappointed when Cook County Judge Caroline Moreland dismissed the lawsuit.
“I did see it as part of the devaluation of Black parents and families that’s so entrenched in our misnamed child welfare system,” she said. “I say the misnamed child welfare system because it’s not a system that supports children’s welfare or protects children’s welfare. It’s designed to punish families, especially Black families.”
Foster said the video visits mostly confuse her four older children. They typically take place in the mornings, when the children are eating breakfast. The children, who are between the ages of one and six, get antsy. They don’t understand how she can be there virtually but not physically.
“Let’s say I’m showing them a toy. They don’t know why they can’t play with that toy right now,” she said.
Now that the visitation policy has been changed, Foster looks forward to seeing her children in person for the first time in months. But more than that, she hopes to soon regain full custody of them. Until then, she feels the weight of the system.
“It’s even more shackles, if you will, that they already try to put on Black people in America,” she said.
Do you have a story about injustice in the child welfare system? Contact us at [email protected].