Chicago Sun-Times

Child­wel­fare sys­tem has prob­lems

- MARY MITCHELL Email: marym@ sun­times. com Twit­ter: @ MaryMitche­l­lCST

It’s hard to imag­ine a more dys­func­tional child wel­fare sys­tem than the one de­scribed in a fed­eral law­suit.

It is hard to imag­ine a more dys­func­tional child wel­fare sys­tem than the one de­scribed in a fed­eral law­suit filed last week against the Illi­nois Depart­ment of Chil­dren Fam­ily Ser­vices, the Chil­dren’s Home + Aid and 10 child wel­fare work­ers.

Rochelle Ver­meulen, 29, of Romeoville and the mother of 15- month old twins, is claim­ing work­ers at both agen­cies used co­er­cion, in­tim­i­da­tion, and threats to sep­a­rate her from her tod­dlers de­spite her claims of be­ing a do­mes­tic vi­o­lence vic­tim.

On Tues­day, the Fam­ily De­fense Law Cen­ter will hold a news con­fer­ence at 70 E. Lake St., to out­line the stun­ning al­le­ga­tions.

“It’s hard to be­lieve an or­ga­ni­za­tion that is sup­posed to be pro­tect­ing chil­dren and fam­i­lies would be­have this way, but it is not at all un­com­mon,” said Diane Redleaf, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Fam­ily De­fense Cen­ter.

On Mon­day, a spokesman for the Illi­nois Depart­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­ily Ser­vices de­clined to dis­cuss the law­suit, say­ing the agency does not com­ment on pend­ing lit­i­ga­tion.

The Chil­dren’s Home + Aid did not re­spond to my in­quiry about this law­suit.

But the suit claims that Ver­meulen fled her home Aug. 11 after a vi­o­lent con­fronta­tion with her al­leged bat­terer, and moved into her step­fa­ther’s home in Romeoville.

Af­ter­ward, some­one called the DCFS hot­line al­leg­ing the home con­tained “mold.”

DCFS did not ver­ify the pres­ence of mold be­fore a worker or­dered Ver­meulen to take the chil­dren to a home­less shel­ter, ac­cord­ing to the suit.

De­spite fol­low­ing her in­struc­tions, Ver­meulen claims the worker re­moved her chil­dren and forced her to sign an “out- ofhome” safety plan.

The tod­dlers were then placed with the al­leged abuser’s brother and sis­ter- in- law.

“We’ve never seen a case where they told [ a mother] to go to a shel­ter with the kids and then refuse to help her get to the shel­ter, and then take the kids away,” Redleaf said.

Ac­cord­ing to the law­suit, the phys­i­cal abuse be­gan in May after Ver­meulen’s mother died sud­denly. The al­leged as­saults in­cluded the bat­terer “chok­ing [ Ver­meulen], hit­ting her in the face, throw­ing her against the wall and body slam­ming her onto the top of a dog cage.”

Ver­meulen de­cided to leave the re­la­tion­ship after she was al­legedly at­tacked.

“It is the law un­der new rules that a per­son who is a vic­tim of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence should not be pre­sumed to be a ne­glect­ful par­ent,” Redleaf said.

“Yet in this case the only ba­sis for DCFS hav­ing any in­volve­ment in Rochelle’s life is the belief she should have be­haved dif­fer­ently,” she said.

Ver­meulen said she could not be­lieve DCFS was in­ves­ti­gat­ing her.

“When the lady came to my door, I was dumb­founded. It was one of the big­gest nightmares in my life be­sides los­ing my mother,” she told me.

“I couldn’t be­lieve they didn’t care about me be­ing abused and me try­ing to leave my abuser. [ One of the case­work­ers] told me: ‘ You should have left him sooner.’ I be­lieve they just ba­si­cally took my abuser’s side,” the mother said.

Ac­cord­ing to the law­suit, one case­worker

“It is hard to be­lieve an or­ga­ni­za­tion that is sup­posed to be pro­tect­ing chil­dren would be­have this way, but it is not at all un­com­mon.’’

Diane Redleaf, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Fam­ily De­fense Cen­ter

re­fused to con­sider Ver­meulen’s grand­mother’s home as a suit­able place­ment, be­cause she lived “too far away,” and no one was avail­able to in­spect it.

After le­gal coun­sel got in­volved, the child wel­fare agen­cies agreed to re­turn the tod­dlers to Ver­meulen on Oct. 1.

“She jumped through ev­ery hoop that they put in front of her, but [ the state] be­haved to­ward the mother like she was an abu­sive par­ent. It is Do­mes­tic Vi­o­lence Aware­ness this month, and this shows there is a lot of room for aware­ness,” Redleaf said.

Peo­ple who care about child wel­fare should be watch­ing this case. It could show us why the sys­tem is over­due for an over­haul.

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