Thursday, October 7, 2010

Case 39 and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services

I saw the movie Case 39. I guess I should say spoiler alert before I go on. This is not a movie I want to endorse or recommend but it did make me think about our legal system and how we deal with children.

The movie involves a woman who works for a social service agency concerned with abused and/or neglected children. The California equivalent to the Department of Children and Family Services. Emily (played by Renee Zellweger) is assigned to an unusual family. She feels the daughter is being abused. She ends up rushing to the home just as the child's parents are shoving the child into an oven.

The child is saved by Emily and her friend Detective Barron (Ian McShane). The result is that the parents are sent to a mental health facility and the child ends up living with the social worker. The child turns out to be an evil demon that feeds on death and misery.

Evil child movies always give me the Heebie-jeebies. The juxtaposition of the innocence of a child with the evil of an ageless creature is unsettling. This movie lacked the chills of The Omen or The Exorcist but the idea is the same.

The point I want to make is not that they don't make movies about possessed children as well as they did in the old days. The point is that our legal system has some severe limitations when dealing with children.

Emily is hard working and caring. That being said she had 39 cases in her caseload and limited time to spend on each. She also had no children of her own and had a difficult childhood. Thus, little real life experience concerning how to raise children. Although, fictional the description of Emily is not far from a realistic account of the problems facing social workers.

In these types of cases a social worker makes a decision based on a moment in time rather then over a period of years. I'm not saying they necessarily make the wrong decisions only that their decisions are based on limited information. The Courts have the same limitations. The Judge's understanding of the case is limited to the evidence presented by the parties. The Court often never hears from the children personally. There are certain exceptions to the hearsay rules in Illinois related to children in abuse cases. In addition it is not unusual for the parties not to seek the testimony of the children.

The hard cases are not the sever abuse cases or the drug exposed infants. The hard cases involve the close calls. Foster homes are often worse then leaving the child where she was at. Some foster homes contain other children who have been abused. These children may act out against other foster children in the home. Relative placements can also be troubling. If a mother abuses her child then giving the child to the grandmother who raised the abusive mother may be a mistake.

Supervision is also difficult. Social workers have a large caseload. It is difficult to monitor all the the placements. I court hearing every six months or so is no guarantee anyone is providing proper services and supervision to those involved. In addition case workers are often lacking in the experience and education to deal with children with sever psychological and emotional problems.

I don't have the statistics as to how many children who grow up in foster care end up having a successful and productive life. I will say based on my experience that many of them grow up to have their own children raised in foster care. I can also say that success stories are the exception and not the rule.

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