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staff reporter Song’s e-mail address is [email protected]. A federal judge has given the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services 30 days to improve its system for investigating and determining abuse claims against child care professionals-the end result of a 6-year-old class action. The plaintiff class, which exceeds 150,000, includes teachers, day care owners and employees, and nannies accused of child abuse or neglect, who allege the department (DCFS) failed to give them a fair hearing. The court-mandated reforms will mean that a high-level administrative review of evidence must take place before the agency can take action against child care professionals and that there will be a strict notification requirement. Dupuy v. McDonald, No. 97-C-4199 (N.D. Ill.). Lawyers for the plaintiffs anticipate going back to court to address relief for those who lost their jobs due to errors of the department, once the first order is implemented, said Diane Redleaf of Chicago’s Lehrer & Redleaf, one of the firms representing the plaintiffs. “This decision is intended to insure that there’s a review of the basis [for the finding] before it takes effect,” she said. The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Inc., and Chicago’s Johnson, Jones, Snelling, Gilbert & Davis also represented the plaintiffs in the class action, first filed in 1997. Over the last decade, the state agency has been increasingly criticized for lengthy delays in resolving abuse reports. The department has already begun to implement the changes ordered by the court, said Jill Manuel, its deputy director of communications. She said that the department, whose first priority is “protecting and serving the children of Illinois,” has been “fine-tuning” the appeal process since the inception of the case. “It’s quite a delicate balance between the rights of perpetrators and rights of children that we’re charged to protect,” she said. “And we’ll do everything to protect these kids.” But the class action alleged that those who were accused of abuse were, in effect, banned from the child care professions without proper due process. Attorneys offered the story of an anonymous 26-year-old Guatemalan immigrant to illustrate what, they said, were fundamental problems in the system. The Guatemalan woman had been caring for a 15-month-old boy who suffered from a seizure disorder. During a Sept. 20, 1997, hospital visit, an X-ray revealed a spiral fracture to the baby’s leg. The family services department, which also licenses child care providers, declared the woman unfit to work in child care after the hospital reported the incident. Although there was evidence to counter the allegations, the agency, without a hearing, barred the woman from working in the child care industry, the lawyers said. The agency labels child abuse or neglect reports as “indicated” when there is reasonable cause to believe that mistreatment exists. Depending on an incident’s severity, reports are kept in the register from five to 50 years, effectively blacklisting the accused individual from working in child care, “because employers are required to check the register,” said Redleaf. The Guatemalan woman’s report would have been kept for 20 years, but DCFS has dropped the case. Regulations entitled an individual to a hearing within 90 days of notice. But appeals averaged 18 months, Redleaf said. Many meritless reports? Redleaf said the system unduly punished the innocent because 75% of “indicated” reports turn out to be meritless. This high rate of error was the result of “one person, the investigator, having all the gamut of responsibility that you never would in any other legal context,” said Amy Zimmerman, assistant director for the Children’s Health and Education Project at the Chicago lawyers’ committee. The agency acknowledged the need for a more vigorous proof standard, according to court records. Song’s e-mail address is [email protected].

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