Shriver Center Calls on Illinois to Prioritize Reunification of Families in the Foster System

In-person visits for parents of children in foster care have been suspended for weeks

Click here to read our recent statements on Buxton v. DCFS.

Staying connected with loved ones is as important as ever. This is especially true for parents fighting to reunify with their children in the foster system.  

Yet for more than a month the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has suspended in-person visits for thousands of children in the state’s foster system

“We’re talking about multiple months in which parents have no physical access to their children. That is its own public health concern, the mental health impact on children, the stress on parents, who do not know if their children have been exposed, if they’re healthy,” said Tanya Gassenheimer, a staff attorney at the Shriver Center.

This suspension contradicts federal guidance that advises against blanket orders or policies in child welfare proceedings due to the harm they can cause.  

Virtual visits are insufficient substitutes to in-person visits, especially for small children who cannot engage over video or phone. In-person contact between parents and children is critical for the development of the parent/child bond and for aspects of the relationship like breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact, and such in-person contact can occur while observing CDC and other public health guidelines to the maximum extent possible. These visits must be prioritized in the way that essential healthcare is prioritized. Taking care of family members, accessing healthcare services, and accessing human services, all elements of parenting, fall within Governor Pritzker’s definition of essential activities, as they should.  

Even if in-person visits were to be rescheduled for after the stay-at-home order ends, those visits would be fundamentally different, as children do not stop growing and developing. Parents cannot be deprived of being part of that growth and development. Even in cases in which virtual visits may be necessary, low-income families may not have access to the necessary technology and should not be expected to obtain access to the technology during this pandemic. DCFS has offered virtual visits as an alternative without providing parents with the tools to participate in those visits, which for many parents simply means no contact at all with their children during a national and global crisis.  

Moreover, because most service providers and courts are closed, parents are often unable to comply with court-ordered counseling, classes, and other activities. Parents seeking reunification with their children should not be penalized for suffering consequences of the current pandemic like loss of income, loss of housing, lack of access to childcare, having to care for at-risk or infected loved ones, experiencing symptoms themselves, service closures, and quarantine. 

The Shriver Center has urged DCFS to protect parental rights while preserving public health during the COVID-19 pandemic
Inspired by the Shriver Center’s work, advocates in Texas and Ontario, Canada, have sent similar letters to their local child welfare authorities. And through our Legal Impact Network and the Racial Justice Institute Network, we are supporting advocates nationwide who are tackling these issues on behalf of parents. 

We are hopeful for and supportive of the litigation filed by the Cook County Public Defender’s Office on May 6, 2020, that is seeking to end the suspension of supervised, in-person visitation by DCFSThis was a necessary step toward stopping the harm being done to thousands of low-income parents and children who have been unable to see or hear from each other since DCFS issued its harmful policy on March 25, 2020. 

UPDATE (May 15, 2020):

We applaud the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender on its arguments yesterday in Buxton v. DCFS to protect and defend parents’ constitutional rights to family unity and integrity. The Illinois Department for Children and Family Services’ (DCFS) blanket ban of supervised visitation not only harms families but it also contravenes court orders, Governor Pritzker’s Executive Order, health experts’ guidance, federal law, federal guidance, and DCFS’ own rules. DCFS’ ban shows an appalling failure to consider parent/child contact with the gravitas it deserves. Instead of prioritizing family preservation, the ban exacerbates the already disproportional impact and trauma caused by this pandemic on marginalized families of color and those living in poverty, who are overrepresented in the foster system.

We strongly urge DCFS to act in the best interest of families by retracting the ban and facilitating the return of supervised visits. Anything else would be a gross miscarriage of justice.

UPDATE (May 19, 2020):

We disagree with today’s decision by the Chancery Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County to dismiss the case and not issue a temporary restraining order. Read our joint statement with Movement for Family Power in response to the court’s decision.

Media coverage:

Chicago Sun-Times: DCFS must end its ban on supervised visits between parents, children, and siblings (op-ed by Cook County Public Defender Amy P. Campanelli)

Chicago Sun-Times: Social distancing hits hard for families in DCFS system

WBEZ: This Mother’s Day, Illinois Parents Must Stay Away from Their Children in Foster Care

Women’s Media Center: Closed courts create anguish for families separated by child welfare system

Chronicle of Social Change: Public Defender Fights Blanket Ban on Supervised Family Visits

WTTW: Cook County Public Defender Challenging DCFS Ban on Supervised Visits

More Information

Systemic inequities in the criminal legal system result in stripped financial power that is often most pervasive for Black and Brown communities.

To receive the latest news and information from the Shriver Center