HEARING BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON HUMAN RESOURCES
OF THE COMMITTEE ON WAYS AND
MEANS HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES ONE HUNDRED THIRD
CONGRESS FIRST SESSION
JUNE 21, 1993 CHICAGO, ILLINOIS
STATEMENT OF ANITA WEINBERG, STAFF ATTORNEY, CHIL-
DREN'S RIGHTS PBOJECT, LEGAL ASSISTANCE FOUNDATION OF
Ms. WEINBERG. Thank you for the opportunity to
I am an attorney and a social worker. I am testifying
on behalf of clients of the Children's Right Project of the Legal
Assistance Foundation of Chicago. Our clients include children, parents,
and relatives who are involved in the child welfare and juvenile court
systems because of allegations of neglect and infrequently abuse,
where expert opinions differ. I also represented abused and ne-
glected children while working in the Cook County Public Guard- ians
Office. Before becoming a lawyer, I directed the Resources for
Permanence Project at the Child Welfare League of America. In that
capacity I worked on the Federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare
Act of 1980.
With tragedy often comes the opportunity for change.
With trag- edy also comes the risk of implementing simplistic,
shortsighted changes that make the public and politicians feel good, but
that do not improve children's lives. Instead, these changes let us
avoid wrestling with the more difficult issues.
Ever since I
worked in the Public Guardian's Office, I must say, I have envied Mr.
Murphy's ability to make complex issues appear simple. But there is a
danger in simplification.
In Illinois, following the tragic death of
Joseph Wallace, we are confronted with the public perception that
parents brought to the juvenile court system have failed their children
and are irredeem- ably harmful. It has been argued "these parents do not
deserve the benefit of the doubt." But what the proponents of this
position do not consider is that maybe the children of these parents
deserve the "benefit of the doubt," so long as their safety can be
Following Joseph Wallace's death, the complex issue of
deciding what we do once we suspect or know a child has been abused,
harmed, or is at risk of harm is being lost. There has been an effort
by some to smooth the way for more children to enter our foster care
system, to make it easier to remove children before reasonable efforts
are made to maintain them at home, and to make it more difficult for
children, once removed, ever to return home. This effort to separate
children fromparents ignores what happens to children who grow up in
foster care, separated from families that are capa- ble of being helped,
or who maybe do not belong in the system at all. I think Denise Kane
eloquently described what happens to chil- dren in the foster care
system. It also ignores that studies are teaching us that large
proportions of homeless adults grew up in foster care. It ignores, as
Ms. Fry said, the fact that Joseph Wal- lace's mother, like a large
percentage of the parents found to have abused and neglected their
children, grew up in the foster care sys- tem that a vocal minority now
wants more children to enter.
It is easy to assert that no child
should be abused or neglected. That is not disputed. Nobody is sitting
here and saying that they should be. But it is not so easy for children
to be separated from their parents and to be refused help when that help
them together and keep them safe. Obviously, if that help cannot
protect them, then the least worse alternative is to place them in
foster care. There is no question about that.
small percentage of parents set out to harm their children. An
overwhelming percent are accused of neglect, not abuse. It occurs
because the parent is overwhelmed with respon- sibility, with poverty,
lacks support networks, knowledge of how to parent, how to manage crises
and where to turn for help. I know we are not looking for excuses for
why the abuse and neglect oc- curs, but when thinking about what is best
for the child and what is in a child's best interest, we have to look at
what led to the abuse or neglect and what we can do about it.
Given the facts, as Mr. Murphy has presented them in his anec-
dotes, those cases should never have been referred for placement
prevention, nor should the children ever have been returned home.
Illinois' Family First program was never meant to serve those
families. But limiting funding for the program is not the answer. We
need to figure out why those families were referred. We must improve the
program so the children who are benefiting from it can continue to do
so. We cannot fail to look at the broad range of fami- lies benefiting
from these services -- families whose children would otherwise be
removed because of inadequate housing. Denise Kane referred to James
Norman. Families headed by teenage mothers are growing up in the foster
care system and have not gotten the services and training they need to
become independent adults and better parents than their parents were.
Mothers are victims of do- mestic violence and who are at risk of losing
their children because they are afraid they lack the financial resources
and support net- work to leave their abusive spouses.
children of these parents deserve our efforts to save their families. In
Illinois, the problem is not the concept of family preser- vation, it is
the way in which Illinois' Family First program was implemented.
In response to the public outcry over Joseph Wallace's horrible
death, Illinois is about to add the phrase "best interests" into its
Juvenile Court Act 35 times. But existing Federal and State law only
prevents a child's removal when it is "desirable and possible." And that
is what reasonable efforts refer to.
Had the professionals properly
identified the risks to Joseph if he remained with his mother and
adequately presented the known facts to the court, the court would have
been able to make a deci- sion that protected him. If the term "best
interests" is supposed to protect the health and safety of the child,
then our laws already cover that. Our problem in Illinois is ensuring
effective implemen- tation of the laws, not changing them.
need to look at how social workers, attorneys, and judges as- sess risks
to children, whether they remain with their families or enter foster
care. We need to identify better ways to ensure fami- lies who have
neglected or abused their children, but who want help and can be helped,
receive the types of services they require so that they will be able to
adequately care for their children.
We need to look at the training
of those who are making deci- sions. We need to examine the ability of
the court system to give
the time required to consider the evidence and the recommenda-
tions of the parties to the case and to make decisions.
just, in conclusion, urge you to pass the Federal bill. I think the
continuum of services it recognizes as important and the accountability
and monitoring that it also puts into place is critical to our children.