A ProPublica Illinois story has urgent
lessons for state lawmakers – including lessons about the real reasons children
“known to the system” sometimes die.
and the Chicago Sun-Times
published a searing
on the harm that has been done, for decades, to thousands of
Spanish speaking families by the Illinois Department of Children and Family
Services (DCFS). The story, by reporters
Melissa Sanchez and Duaa Eldeib is long, and it is worth every minute of your
The story found that sometimes because of incompetence,
sometimes because of laziness and sometimes because of bias, children’s time
trapped in foster care has been prolonged and families needlessly destroyed
because DCFS did not provide caseworkers or foster parents who spoke Spanish.
It’s bad enough when children must endure needless foster
care while their parents are forced to jump through endless, meaningless hoops.
It’s that much worse when the parents don’t
even know what hoops to jump through because the marching orders are in a language
they don’t understand.
Illinois promised to fix these problems – in 1977.
It signed a consent decree in response to a
class-action lawsuit concerning failure to properly serve Spanish-speaking
It’s known as the “Burgos
decree” after the family involved in the original case, Leopoldo and Iris
Burgos. But, ProPublica Illinois
shows, decade after decade, DCFS has violated the decree.
For the children, all of the trauma of separation is
compounded when they can’t even communicate with their foster parents.
And if young children are left to languish in
such homes, they may wind up speaking in a different language from their own
At that point, the usually white,
middle-class foster parents and/or the child welfare agency can play
the “bonding card.”
Well yes, they may say, maybe we never should have taken the
children in the first place, and we certainly shouldn’t have kept them all this
time, but tough luck Mom and Dad, your kids have “bonded” with strangers.
And tough luck kids – you’ll never see your
parents again, unless you can find them when you become adults.
I’ll come back to this part of the story below.
But first, the ProPublica Illinois
story teaches another vital lesson. It’s about
the real reasons for the horror stories that often drive child welfare policy –
in many cases, driving that policy off a cliff.
These lessons are particularly important right now in Illinois, where one
such horror story has prompted some lawmakers and others to scapegoat
the state’s efforts to keep families together
, almost certainly setting
off a foster-care panic.
In fact, the real reasons for child abuse deaths have
nothing to do with some Vast Family Preservation Conspiracy.
The real reasons are far more mundane:
Workers who are poorly trained, underqualified, and often so overloaded with
false allegations and cases in which family poverty
is confused with neglect
that they don’t have time to investigate any case
And now, ProPublica
reporting illustrates another reason – just as horrible because,
like the others, it is so mundane: The workers didn’t speak the right language.
examined reports from the office of the DCFS Inspector General and found three
Sanchez and Eldeib write:
One case involved a
6-month-old boy who died in a 2005 trailer fire in western Illinois. A DCFS
investigator had previously visited the home with an interpreter and noted
potentially hazardous space heaters. The investigator relied on the
interpreter’s opinion that the space heaters were safe. Nobody warned the
family about the risk, the father later told the Belleville News-Democrat.
“If they would have
told us it was bad,” he said, “we would have gotten rid of them.” …
In another case, a
DCFS worker who did not speak Spanish relied on a number of interpreters,
including relatives, while investigating the abuse of an 8-month-old boy in
2004 in Aurora, a heavily Latino suburb west of Chicago. DCFS closed its
investigation of the case, but the baby died a few days later after being
shaken. His father was convicted of murder. …
In yet another case,
no Spanish-speaking hotline operators were available in 2010 to take a call
reporting suspected abuse of a 1-year-old girl. By the time the caller finally
got through two days later and then, later still, an investigator checked in on
her, the bruises had faded.
The girl died a few
days later of suffocation and blunt force trauma.
But lawmakers can’t score cheap political points by
promising to hire more Spanish-speaking
It’s so much easier, and cheaper, to invent a
bogeyman -- efforts to keep families together – even though independent
monitors, appointed in response to another lawsuit settlement, found that as
Illinois curbed needless foster care, child safety improved.
caseworkers and interpreters.
Now, about playing
the bonding card
illustrates its story with three cases spanning generations: The original Burgos
case that led to the consent decree, which started in 1972, a tragedy of
needless removal from 1997, the year the Illinois system was at its worst
thanks to a previous foster-care panic, and a case that began in 2014 and still
The latter case involves Jorge Matias, an undocumented
immigrant from Guatemala. As the story points out, Matias has never been
accused of abusing or neglecting his children.
His only “crime” was maintaining a relationship with the children’s
mother, who was addicted to heroin.
When Matias’ first child was confiscated at birth he was
placed by a private agency, Children’s Home & Aid, with foster parents Jana
and Peter Palenik. They did not speak Spanish – and they chose
not to speak English at home.
They spoke to the boy in their native language – Slovak.
Odds are there are very few native Slovak speaking children
who are taken from their parents.
fact that these foster parents refused even to speak English at home should
have immediately disqualified them, since, inevitably, this would make it
harder for older foster children to communicate, and harder for the youngest
children to maintain any relationship with their own parents.
It’s not clear when Children’s Home & Aid and DCFS found
out about the foster parents’ Slovak-only policy – but caseworkers visiting the
home should have noticed how the foster parents were communicating with the
infant in their care.
Yet the child not only was not returned to the father from
whom he never should have been taken, he was not moved to the home of relatives
who say they were – and remain – willing to care for him.
He was not even moved to a foster home with
Matias had another child by the same mother, that child also was placed with
the Slovak speakers.
A third child was
placed with Matias’ relatives. (By the time that child was born, DCFS was under
fire from the Inspector General’s office for its handling of the case.)
A recommendation for
As the children continued to bond with their Slovak-speaking
foster parents, and because Matias wouldn’t throw the woman he loved under the
bus, Children’s Home and Aid recommended termination of parental rights and awarding
guardianship to the foster parents, who started talking about adoption.
It looked like things might finally change in July 2018,
when the DCFS Inspector General – generally no friend of families – criticized
the handling of the case.
According to ProPublica Illinois
her interim report
indicated serious bias
against Matias and an unnecessary delay in finding a permanent home for his
children. The inspector general recommended that DCFS conduct its own review
and decide if Children’s Home & Aid should be removed from the case. DCFS
took over the case and opened an internal investigation into whether Matias’
Burgos rights had been violated.
But the next month, on the very day he was supposed to meet
with his new caseworker, Matias was arrested by Immigration and Customs
According to ProPublica Illinois
: “An ICE spokeswoman
said agents had been outside his apartment building looking for someone else;
they didn’t target Matias, who had no criminal record.” But Matias “still
wonders if somebody involved in his children’s case reported him to immigration
Three months later, Matias was deported to Guatemala. He
wants his children to live with him there, and continues to fight for them in
court, appearing via video link.
If his children can’t
be with him, Matias said he’d like them to live with his relatives in Chicago,
not with the Paleniks. “Maybe they were victims, too,” he said of the Paleniks.
“But now they want to keep my children.” He fears that if they remain with the
Paleniks, they will have an identity crisis later in life. “I want them to know
their roots and their relatives,” he said.
A “pattern of biased
In February, 2019, three months after Matias was deported,
Acting Inspector General Meryl Paniak issued a final report on the case.
It was scathing.
Again from the ProPublica Illinois story:
[Matias’] case, she
wrote, was perhaps worse than that of the original Burgos family. …Paniak wrote that
“placing any child in a home from birth where they are not taught any language
by which they can communicate with their family of origin violates the basic
precept of child welfare.” …
The report revealed
that Children’s Home & Aid determined Matias was an unfit parent based on
unsupported assumptions, including describing him as “mentally ill or impaired”
because he didn’t make enough progress toward getting his children back.
The inspector general
also found that Children’s Home & Aid conducted excessive drug testing
without cause. Matias had not been suspected of using drugs and, records show,
never tested positive.
The inspector general
recommended that Children’s Home & Aid reimburse DCFS for the costs of the
drug testing and present a plan to address the “pattern of biased
decision-making that pervaded in this case.”
But then it was time to play the bonding card.
Despite the fact that the prolonged foster
care was the fault of DCFS and Children’s Home & Aid, and despite one
instance after another of wrongdoing that caused the needless separation and
trauma, the acting inspector general said there was a “dilemma” concerning what
This is, of course, what bad child welfare agencies count on
the bonding card
Trump’s functionaries are using the identical argument to keep apart some of
the families they tore apart in the first place at the Mexican border.
In fact, Matias has shown remarkable compassion and
restraint concerning the Paleniks. There is nothing to indicate that he would
deny the children ongoing contact with them were he to regain custody.
And, in the decades since the claims about
bonding first became part of child welfare orthodoxy we’ve learned that bonding
is more complicated than simply running a stopwatch.
It’s also become clear, as
I discuss here,
that in American child welfare, you only get to play the
bonding card if you’re white and middle-class.
But regardless, there should be no dilemma here.
One of the things we owe our children is a
In a just society no child
need ever be afraid that when they grow up their children might be taken from
them just because someone with more money and lighter skin wants to keep them
for their very own.
We will never
achieve such a society as long as child welfare agencies are allowed to play
the bonding card in order to get away with doing whatever they want to poor
families of color.
I'll close with a question I've posed before: If I kidnap your child at birth, flee to Mexico, take really
good care of him, and then come back four years later, can I keep him? Letting child welfare agencies play the
bonding card amounts to giving them a license to steal poor people’s children.