PEORIA — When Michelle Weidner and her husband were accused of fracturing their son’s skull in 2010, the family’s life turned upside down until a second opinion determined a blurred line in a CT scan was not a fracture, clearing the Weidners of allegations of abuse.
The experience of being wrongfully accused led Weidner to her current post as executive director of the newly-formed Family Justice Resource Center in Peoria. The nonprofit group works with families accused of child abuse and neglect to connect them with doctors and other experts who may be able to provide an explanation for what authorities claim is abuse.
“We made it through our situation unscathed. But I needed to figure out how this happened to us,” said Weidner. Through her research into how abuse investigations are handled, she connected with parents facing similar allegations.
“It’s not as rare as people believe. It’s happening more and more,” Weidner said of parents who challenge abuse accusations.
Bloomington attorney Alan Novick serves on the board of directors for the resource center. With more than 30 years of courtroom experience, Novick noted the majority of cases that make their way to abuse and neglect court involve parents with substance abuse or domestic violence issues. When other forms of abuse are alleged, parents may need more than legal advice to combat the accusation, said Novick.
“Our job is to get the resources together for them, for the parents who are caught up in the system. That’s why the Family Justice Resource Center exists,” said Novick.
Diane Redleaf, also a member of the center’s board, is legal director of the National Center for Housing & Child Welfare in Chicago where she directs its Redleaf Family Advocacy Institute. Redleaf has been involved in litigation responsible for major policy changes in the handling of child abuse cases in Illinois and across the U.S.
As evidence that more change is needed, Redleaf points to the high number of unfounded allegations of child abuse reported through state hotline call centers each year. About 7.4 million hotline calls are received nationwide, with an estimated 80 percent alleging some form of neglect or abuse.
About 40 percent of those calls are screened out of the system, leaving between 800,000 to 1 million claims of all types of abuse to be investigated, according to Redleaf.
In Illinois, the Department of Children and Family Services conducted investigations involving 77,423 families in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. A total of 20,002 investigations resulted in indicated findings, or credible allegations.
Troubling to Redleaf and other attorneys for families are the nearly 57,000 cases — almost two-thirds of the investigations — that ended with unfounded complaints against parents. A total of 424 complaints were pending at year’s end.
Since 2014, the number of credible findings has been about 25 percent, according to DCFS data. The numbers of unfounded reports has hovered around 75 percent over the five-year period.
The high number of unfounded reports "demonstrates that investigators are conscientiously examining the evidence before making a decision," said DCFS spokesman Neil Skene. "Even when we find sufficient evidence against a parent, particularly in neglect cases, we often respond with help for the family rather than removing the child," he said.
In the initial hours after an abuse claim is lodged, parents often are seeking their own answers to their child's injury, said Weidner. What a parent says to doctors and authorities can be used against them later.
In many cases, parents are unaware of the need to consult with a lawyer, said Weidner.
"There's a fear among parents that if they have an attorney, they look guilty," she said.
The cost of a second medical opinion can be out of reach for some parents. Even after a second opinion from Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center showed that the Weidner's 5-week-old son did not have a skull fracture, DCFS continued its investigation, she said, because a doctor with the Pediatric Resource Center in Peoria would not alter her initial finding of abuse.
The Pediatric Resource Center is staffed with "child abuse pediatricians" who work with law enforcement and DCFS and offer testimony in court in alleged abuse cases. The center also receives referrals from parents and doctors looking for answers when a child has an unexplained injury.
DCFS investigators rely on experts to sort out conflicting or inconsistent information that may be involved in abuse cases, said Skene.
"In some cases they must weigh different conclusions by doctors, medical examiners, psychologists or other professionals. About half our investigations are about children under 3 years old or younger. Very young children can't speak for themselves or protect themselves, and that makes our work especially important in protecting them," said Skene.
Redleaf cautioned that reliance on a single medical opinion can lead to false allegations against parents.
"That practice has not died easily," she said.