E-Newsletter: August 2017

Updates on Key Litigation

The Family Defense Center utilizes impact litigation, such as civil rights and class action lawsuits, in order to advocate justice for clients and pursue systemic reforms in child welfare law and policy in Illinois. Here are updates on two important impact litigation matters we have been working on.

Nicole P. et al v. DCFS et al

In September 2016, The Family Defense Center partnered with a team of pro bono attorneys from Jones Day to file a class action lawsuit, Nicole P. et al v. DCFS and Director George Sheldon. The lawsuit asked the court to order the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS) to stop using the overly broad and vague Allegation 74 (Inadequate Supervision). A judge had already declared the rule invalid but DCFS continued to use it to investigative neglect cases and make findings that would be registered in the State’s child abuse register. A person could be charged with Allegation 74 any time a “child has been placed in a situation or circumstances that are likely to require judgment or actions greater than the child’s level of maturity…” The lawsuit also asked to expunge the people currently listed as child neglectors under the vague rule and to only resume Allegation 74 investigations when a new lawful rule is formally adopted. In February, the court granted class certification, allowing the suit to proceed as a class action. The lawsuit has the potential to affect as many as 30,000 people in Illinois.

The Center’s staff have spent the last several months in settlement negotiations with DCFS. In May of this year, DCFS replaced the rule with a new, lawful version that emphasizes that a person must have acted with “blatant disregard” of a “real, significant and imminent risk of harm” to the child instead of the overbroad language in the prior version of the rule. While a new rule is in place, DCFS has yet to fix its procedural instructions to staff. While the rule is an important first step, the continuing negotiations and implementation of consistent procedures are important remaining steps towards ensuring that DCFS can focus on responsible and appropriate interventions for the families who truly need them.

Kelly K. v. Walker et al

In May, the father of Kelly’s  children violently pushed her against a wall, brandished a gun, and fled with their daughter. Although Kelly was the victim of the attack, she was arrested because the father had falsely claimed that she pushed him as well. That same day, DCFS received a hotline call about Kelly’s two daughters. When she was ready for discharge from jail, a DCFS contract agency threatened Kelly that she could have no contact with her children, even by phone or text, until she signed a so-called “safety plan” – all without providing her the basis for the safety plan or the required explanation of her rights and responsibilities. Kelly was given no choice but to put her children with their paternal grandparents, effectively giving their father unlimited access but severely restricting her rights.

On June 22, the Center filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court in Chicago that holds DCFS accountable for its tendency to demand safety plans without regard to whether or not there is probable cause to believe a child was abused or neglected by the parent from whom the child is removed and without sufficiently dire circumstances to justify the separation of children from their parents without a court order.

DCFS’s actions in this case breach the 2016 agreement established during the settlement of a similar lawsuit filed in 2014 on behalf of another victim of domestic violence in A.B. et al v. Holliman et al. The settlement agreement that came out of that case requires DCFS to revise policies and procedures for the development of safety plans that ensure that: safety plans will only be developed if there exists evidence of an immediate, unmitigated safety threat to a child; parents are given notice of the basis for protective custody; and parents have access to information about their rights and responsibilities.

Don’t Miss This Year’s Benefit!

The Family Defense Center is delighted to announce its annual benefit, Celebrating Justice for Families, which will honor individuals and organizations that have demonstrated their dedication to justice for families in the child welfare system.

This year’s event will take place on Wednesday, September 27, 2017 at Maggiano’s Banquet Hall, and will feature an exclusive VIP reception before the program for those who purchase a VIP ticket.

Join the Center for a wonderful night in support of a more just and fair child welfare system for all families.

Purchase tickets or become a sponsor today!

Thank you Summer Staff; Welcome Connie

Samantha Tarlton and Connie Prater on Samantha’s last day

Over the summer, The Family Defense Center hosted one summer law clerk, Ryan Shellady, and one Public Interest Law Initiative fellow, Sarah Craig, as well as three interns, Simone Wallk, Amelia Urwin, and Andrea Mireles.

Ryan and Sarah have helped the Center’s legal team by following up on cases, providing updates on the Center’s litigation efforts, preparing for hearings, and conducting research. Simone, Andrea and Amelia have been a huge help to the development team, particularly as the Center prepares for its upcoming annual benefit.

This summer, the Center also said goodbye to Samantha Tarlton, who returned to her home state of Indiana. Sam’s work as Development and Communications Associate was crucial to the organization’s continued health and success. We wish her all the best in her next endeavor!

Finally, we are thrilled to welcome Connie Prater as our new Development and Communications Manager. Connie is a graduate of the University of Chicago and comes to the Center with a background in grants management and development coordination. We are excited to have her on board to support The Family Defense Center’s sustainability and growth.

“Stop-and-Frisk” for Caregivers: How Expanded Mandated Reporting Laws Hurt Families

Founder and Legal Director Diane Redleaf is featured alongside Center supporter Professor Dorothy Roberts in a Truthout article arguing against universal mandated reporting laws. These laws require everyone to report suspected child neglect or abuse instead of trained professionals. According to Prof. Roberts, author of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare and a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, these laws exacerbate the “racial bias in child maltreatment reporting” and misdirect resources from children truly affected by maltreatment. The Center appreciates the work of Prof. Roberts towards a “radically transformed system based on supporting families rather than investigating parents.”


Founder and Legal Director Diane Redleaf Presents TEDx Talk, “When Can Parents Let Children Be Alone?”

Founder and Legal Director Diane Redleaf presented “When Can Parents Let Children Be Alone?” at TEDxUChicago 2017 in May. Diane discusses the cases of The Family Defense Center’s client Natasha Felix, a mother who let her children play in the park next door, and the Meitivs, a family who gained national attention after allowing their children to walk home from the park. These cases illustrate the flaws in existing child welfare laws that lead to misplaced charges of child neglect and a fear to let kids play alone.

While discussing these flawed policies, Diane asks, “Does this policy distinguish between Natasha, the Meitivs, and a truly neglectful [parent]? If it doesn’t, it’s a bad policy.”

Watch Diane’s TEDx Talk below to learn how we can move forward to let kids play!

The Center continues to advocate for the rights of families, and, if you would like to support this work, please donate here.

E-Newsletter: June 2017

Volunteer Spotlight: Attorney Chrystal Knight Goes “Above and Beyond”

Attorney Chrystal Knight

Chrystal Knight became licensed to practice law in 1990 and has focused much of her career on real estate law. In 2009, a private client with an Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) allegation brought Chrystal into the world of child welfare. Distressed by what the agency was doing, supposedly “in the best interest of the child,” she began researching her client’s issue and found The Family Defense Center. After receiving information from the Center on how to handle the case, Chrystal vowed to volunteer. She took her first case through the Center representing a single mother battling depression in 2011 and, since then, has become a key attorney in the Center’s pro bono program.

Chrystal’s tireless commitment to justice was epitomized in a recent case for Keierra M., a young, single mother of four boys. Chrystal accepted Keierra’s case from the Center and began representing her in a DCFS administrative appeal. Keierra had been charged with child neglect after her youngest son, who has a genetic disorder, was failing to gain weight. This charge of neglect would lead to Keierra being listed on the State Central Register of child abuse and neglect for twenty years.

Keierra with two of her sons

At the same time as her child neglect case, Keierra was going through a forced eviction. Although eviction cases are outside the scope of work that the Center handles, Chrystal took it upon herself to represent Keierra in the eviction matter. Chrystal’s successful representation allowed Keierra to leave her former apartment without debt.

Keierra’s DCFS case was challenging due to a lack of child care, family support, and housing. Keierra and her sons struggled with homelessness and moved away from Chicago shortly before her DCFS hearing. The hearing was delayed on multiple occasions for several months due to those logistical difficulties. When it finally began, it did not conclude in one day, so a second day was scheduled two months later. Throughout Keierra’s ordeal, Chrystal was encouraging and remained at her side, working tirelessly to prepare for the hearings and line up key witnesses, even though so much time had passed.

“…She was an angel sent by God to help us,” Keierra said.

Finally, the case concluded after almost two years, with the judge ruling in Keierra’s favor. Keierra’s name was cleared and she was allowed a fresh start in her new city – all thanks to Chrystal!

“Ms. Chrystal went above and beyond to help me and my boys. She was very dedicated to helping me get my baby home and clearing my name…We love her and hope she never stops fighting for justice for the ‘little guys,’” Keierra said.

Our Bill for Innovative Pilot Project Passes the Illinois Legislature

Executive Director Rachel Ruttenberg and Representative Feigenholtz at the Illinois House Human Services Committee in May.

The Family Defense Center worked with Senator David Koehler and State Representative Sara Feigenholtz to pass Senate Bill 646 this spring.

This bill authorizes the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) to implement a pilot for an innovative staffing model where domestic violence advocates, who are employed by agencies, are placed in DCFS investigative offices in order to collaborate and support DCFS interventions. This will lead to interventions that are strengths-based, trauma-informed, and family-centered.

The pilot is the product of collaboration with DCFS and the Domestic Violence Child Welfare Resource Coalition, which is led by The Family Defense Center, the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network, and the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The coalition, which is made up of 30 domestic violence organizations and other non-profit agencies, makes recommendations for reforms based on best practice.

“As we know from our clients’ experiences, punitive and ineffective child welfare interventions do not cause long-term sustainable change or improvement for domestic violence survivors and their children, and act as a deterrent from reaching out to systems of support in the future,” said Executive Director Rachel Ruttenberg as she provided oral testimony to the Illinois House Human Services Committee in May.

SB 646 is now on its way to the Governor’s desk to be signed into law. Thank you to our sponsors and partners. We are proud of this important legislation that will further our mission to defend families.

Spring Events Educate, Celebrate, and Inspire

Panelists Siobhan Murray, Maria G.,  Alyease Jones, and Kevin Jakopchek pictured with Staff Attorney and Pro Bono Coordinator Sara Gilloon at our Mother’s Day Tea. Photo by Tone Stockenstrom.

We celebrated Mother’s Day with our annual Mother’s Day Tea event, hosted by Jones Day, on May 10. Former clients and attorneys from our pro bono program, Alyease Jones of The Law Office of Alyease Jones, Siobhan Murray of Murray Law Group, and Kevin Jakopchek of Latham & Watkins LLP, shared their experiences and cases with the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS). Alysia Tate of the Chicago Foundation for Women moderated the discussion. Thank you to all who joined us.

In early May, we stopped by McDermott, Will & Emery LLP with Donuts for Defense to thank the firm’s pro bono committee and lawyers for everything they do for The Family Defense Center and our families. Jones Day and Kirkland & Ellis LLP are also being recognized for their important pro bono contributions this year. Thank you to everyone who volunteers with us!

Families Organizing for Child Welfare Justice Executive Director Suzanne Sellers and Center Executive Director Rachel Ruttenberg with the panelists at National Reunification Day. Photo by Tone Stockenstrom.

On June 3, we celebrated National Reunification Day at an event organized by our friends at Families Organizing for Child Welfare Justice and co-sponsored by The Family Defense Center. Three women, who each had their own experiences with the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services, told their powerful stories of being reunified with their children. Thank you to everyone who participated for your courage and interest in family reunifications.

On June 5, long-time supporter Joy Leibman hosted a lovely Supporter Recognition Reception for our friends in Minnesota. Thank you to everyone who came to celebrate and hear about The Family Defense Center’s latest endeavors.

Finally, save the date for Celebrating Justice for Families, The Family Defense Center’s Annual Benefit, on September 27!

Now’s the Time to Help More Parents like Agnes

The Center is in the middle of its spring fundraising campaign. The campaign, with the theme of making a gift in honor of a special mother, father, or caregiver, runs from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day.

This spring, we have featured our client Agnes. Agnes was charged with child neglect after she promptly sought treatment for her son who had accidentally burned himself. These charges would threaten her ability to work as a nursing assistant and would also negatively reflect on her as an immigration sponsor for her husband. Through the Center’s staunch advocacy, her name was cleared.

We ask for your support to continue serving parents like Agnes who need legal advocacy and representation to defend their families, protect their careers, and clear their names.

Please consider making a gift in honor of a special mother, father, or caregiver today.

A Letter from Our Executive Director

June 2, 2017

Dear Friends and Supporters,

Every day we provide much-needed legal representation and advocacy for parents and caregivers who have become involved in the Illinois child welfare system, a system that we know is fraught with conflict over how best to serve and protect children and is in desperate need of reform.

The past few weeks have been tumultuous ones for the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS). Recent stories of tragic child deaths from the last few years have sparked inquiries into DCFS policies and investigators’ practices by the media and by the DCFS Office of Inspector General. This week, DCFS Director George Sheldon resigned.

In our role as an independent non-profit organization that works exclusively on DCFS matters, we unfortunately have a unique vantage point on the systemic failures. The fact that there have been nine DCFS agency directors in the last seven years makes reform difficult. The reality of trying to improve the system at a time when our state has not had a budget in almost two years makes reform feel impossible.

However, our organization exists in order to hold this system accountable and, at the same time, shape policy in a way that protects children by defending families who need help. While the State of Illinois and DCFS leaders are considering how to move forward, we will continue advocating for families, and working to keep them safe and strong. At the same time, we will continue pushing reform in any way that we can.

We have a vision of a state where the rights of families are respected, protected, and supported by a system that is just and fair, and everything we do here at The Family Defense Center is with that in mind.

Thank you for supporting the important work we do for Illinois families, which is needed now more than ever.


Rachel O’Konis Ruttenberg
Executive Director

Can the Child Welfare System Handle Trans Children? Part 1

The Windy City Times​ wrote a three-part series about the child welfare system and its involvement with families with transgender youth. In the first of the series, Executive Director Rachel O’Konis Ruttenberg​ was quoted saying, “We always want to make sure that people’s Constitutional rights are being upheld, that decisions are not being made with discrimination as part of that process and that children are given the opportunity to remain with their parents or family caregivers whenever it is safe and possible for them to do so.”


Legal Aid Committee Selected Highlights 2016

The Family Defense Center is proud to be featured in The Chicago Bar Association Legal Aid Committee Selected Highlights 2016 alongside the excellent work of our fellow legal aid organizations. Read about our 2016 successes: our collaborative work for domestic violence survivors (page 5); our fight for justice for parents and caregivers unlawfully charged with “inadequate supervision” (page 9); and our policy victories regarding so-called “safety plans” (page 18).