Allegations of Alcohol Abuse Threaten Mom

Girl in White TopName: Jeanelle
Allegation: Inadequate Supervision
Penalty Avoided: 5 Years on State Registry

On May 24, 2011, Jeanelle H. came home to a message on her answering machine that she had to listen to twice to believe. A Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) investigator called to say the state’s investigation was complete and that Jeanelle had been “indicated” as a child neglector. Jeanelle was devastated. The state had decided to indicate her under the vague charge that she had placed her daughter in an “environmentally injurious” situation despite never even interviewing Jeanelle about the accusation. As a result, her career as a high school teacher and her ability to support herself and her daughter Valerie were suddenly in serious jeopardy.

Jeanelle’s ordeal had begun two months earlier with an anonymous call to the DCFS hotline. The caller alleged that Jeanelle was repeatedly intoxicated when she dropped off her then-7-year-old daughter at the bus stop. What followed was an investigation based on an unidentified bus service worker’s hearsay statement that Jeanelle had once “appeared” intoxicated when picking up her daughter on a date two months earlier. The investigation also relied on statements from Valerie’s 5-year-old friend, Anna*, who stated she saw Jeanelle “drink” while the investigator failed to clarify if the child understood and used the term “drink” as the specific consumption of alcohol or the general act of consuming liquids, such as soda.

No traffic stops, police report, Breathalyzer test, or any other evidence of an alcohol-related driving incident had been reported. In fact, Jeanelle doesn’t even drink. Yet the investigator disregarded all the evidence that was in Jeanelle’s favor, and also denied her right to due process by failing to have the decision reviewed in a timely fashion before it could harm her career and her family.

A few days before her scheduled hearing, Jeanelle found the Family Defense Center and completed our intake process. We helped her to represent herself, arming her with a strategy and legal arguments. At the hearing, Jeanelle also explained that she was taking prescribed anxiety medication which could cause her to appear drowsy.

DCFS’ own attorney conceded that the evidence gathered during the investigation was insufficient to sustain the finding against Jeanelle. By using the vague “substantial risk, environmentally injurious” allegation, however, DCFS still urged their administrative law judge to sustain the indicated finding of neglect against Jeanelle. The administrative law judge did just that by citing the general warning on the medicine bottle advising users against the dangers of drowsiness and operating heavy machinery.

Like any other parent would have done, Jeanelle drove her child to the bus stop on a blustery day despite suffering from illness. The only difference between Jeanelle and any other parent who takes care of a child while suffering from an illness is that she was blacklisted and both her and Valerie’s futures were in jeopardy.

The Family Defense Center enlisted pro bono attorneys Michael Weaver, Geoffrey Vance, and Jonathan Huckabay from McDermott Will & Emery to fight for Jeanelle in an appeal to the Circuit Court of Cook County. The team argued against the use of the broad and overreaching “substantial risk, environmentally injurious” allegation that the Illinois General Assembly had removed from Illinois law more than 30 years ago on the grounds that it was far too vague.

After the McDermott team presented Jeanelle’s case to the Circuit Court, the attorney for DCFS agreed that the case against Jeanelle lacked merit and erased the “indicated report” that blacklisted her from working with children. After months of legal proceedings at two levels of the court system, Jeanelle’s ordeal ended on May 1, 2012, nearly a year after she received that shocking voice mail.

Jeanelle said, “After the expungement hearing, I felt relief. I was able to get my life back on track and pursue what I love to do and that is teaching. The Family Defense Center and pro bono attorneys lifted a big weight off my shoulders…” This holiday season, Jeanelle and Valerie have a lot to celebrate.

Sadly, thousands of innocent parents continue to be labeled as guilty of child neglect under the same vague “substantial risk, environmentally injurious” allegation. In dozens of individual cases like Jeanelle’s and in a closely-watched case now pending in the Illinois Supreme Court, the Family Defense Center’s staff and pro bono lawyers are challenging DCFS’ mislabeling of good parents as “child neglectors.”