When a Child Safety Plan = Coercion
The recent trend in child protective services (CPS) of creating safety plans received a set back recently in federal court. Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer of the United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois ruled that in-home safety plans created by the Illinois Department of Children and Families (DCFS) were illegal because they were secured in a coercive manner.
The coercion at issue was the CPS worker’s express or implied threat of to take the child into protective custody lasting more than a brief or temporary period of time. The court also ruled that DCFS failure to provide a mechanism to review safety plans once they were put in place violated due process. The court declared that not all child safety plans trigger constitutional issues and gave DCFS 60 days to create constitutionally adequate procedures consistent with the opinion.
The ruling seems to indicate that DCFS can create an acceptable review process that does not require families to hire legal counsel. The issue of coercion is tricky. While it is possible to use non-coercive language, the imposition of safety plans in which parents agree or the child is removed has features not unlike the old consent dockets of juvenile courts which were also ruled unconstitutional.
If the agency judges a child to be in imminent danger of serious harm–general statutory language for justifying removal of a child–acceptance of a reasonable in-home safety plan may be the family’s only alternative to placement. If the family does not consent to the plan (assuming the plan is reasonable and justified by the safety assessment) there is a seemingly inevitable coercive reality that without acceptance of the plan, the agency will need to take protective custody in order to ensure the safety of a child.
The issue in this decision is that a family’s acceptance of a safety plan must be made only after a full understanding of these realties and the lawful alternatives. Under our constitutional system, state intervention in family life, including the threat of removing a child, is limited. According to this court, due process protections are required to balance the rights of families and the state’s compelling interest in a child’s welfare.