May 15, 2008
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services erroneously labeled 3,051 innocent people as child abusers by placing them on the state's official list.
According to a Belleville News-Democrat investigation, 11,473 people have appealed to strike their names from the state record. The list has a 27 percent error rate of parents falsely accused of abuse. Once on the list, people are required to remain there for a minimum of five years.
"They're not all bad, there are good ones," Nick Brunstein reportedly said of state child abuse investigators, "but the bad ones have the power of God, and with the stroke of a pen they can ruin your life."
Brunstein is a former foster parent who won his 2-year fight against DCFS to clear his name after his 11-year-old foster daughter, diagnosed with schizophrenic and bipolar disorder, accused him and his wife, Judi, of physical and emotional abuse. The girl claimed the family harmed her by requiring the children to do chores and homework.
The Brunsteins lost $20,000 in lawyer fees, and three daughters they had planned to adopt, ages 2, 5 and 11, were permanently removed from their custody.
The Belleville newspaper reported more than 80,000 people were placed on the State Central Register from Jan. 1, 2002, through Aug. 1, 2007. Another 1,426 appeals have been denied, 3,178 have been discarded or withdrawn by the accused, 3,289 have been closed or dismissed though administrative processes, and 529 appeals were pending.
A DCFS spokesman, Kendall Marlowe, said errors can be made, but that most of the people on the child abuse list are legitimately placed there.
"A lot of what happens at these hearings is it becomes a legal process, not ... whether it happened or not, but whether enough evidence is presented," Meryl Paniak, the DCFS' chief administrative law judge told the paper. "So does that mean some people are probably unfounded and shouldn't be? Yes. And it's the same thing with some who are indicated and probably shouldn't be."
However, attorneys who represent parents at appeals hearings have called child abuse investigations flawed and unreliable. In 2006, the News-Democrat reported that 53 children died while they were under DCFS' care following sloppy investigations by caseworkers.