One phone call can ruin a reputation or even a thriving child-care business, under a controversial practice of the Department of Children and Family Services. This one phone call to the DCFS child-abuse hotline may be enough for the agency to file an "indicated" report against a child-care provider, which can have the same effect as convicting the accused of neglect or abuse without any hearings, according to lawyer Diane Redleaf.
Redleaf's clients, Belinda DuPuy and Jeff DuPuy of downstate Cartersville operated a home child care facility in central Illinois when they were "indicated" for neglect, and their 10-year-old daughter was "indicated" for a "sexual incident" that DCFS refused to disclose to the family. With some negotiated provisions, they were allowed to keep the facility running, but the DuPuys said that because of this process, they filed bankruptcy, and were forced to close down their business.
And though the stigma of the "indicated" report remains, none of the family members were ever brought to criminal charges. An appeal of the report in juvenile court may take upwards of three years. The Dupuys are one of 22 plaintiffs in a federal class action suit that will decide the legality and effectiveness of DCFS' actions. Representing the plaintiffs are Lehrer & Redleaf, co-counselled by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Albert Ragland, lead investigator at DCFS explains that there is no loss of freedom for an "indicated" case. "It limits that person's ability to commit a destructive act against a child, and I don't think that is bad." For more: Diane Redleaf at Lehrer & Redleaf, 312-332-2322; Jeff and Belinda Dupuy,618-985-4537; Amy Zimmerman, Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc. , 312-630-9744; Albert Ragland, DCFS lead investigator: 312-808-4066. (Contributing reporter, Jessica Rocha)
CARTERVILLE -- Members of a Carterville family who won a suit against the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services last week say they want to work with people to change how DCFS operates.
Jeff and Belinda Dupuy, who operate the group day care home Belinda and Bear Day and Night Group Care, and Belinda's then-10-year-old daughter first ran afoul of DCFS in 1995 when a customer who owed $800 for child care refused to pay.
Jeff, better known as "Bear," contacted the woman twice asking for payment.
"We told her we didn't expect her to pay it all at once," Jeff said.
After he called the woman a second time, the family's nightmare began. On the July Fourth weekend, the Dupuys were called into the Carterville police station and questioned by a DCFS caseworker, who wouldn't tell them exactly why they had been called, Jeff said.
"They asked us about our sex life and if the kids had ever shown any kind of sex-related action or curiosity incidences," Jeff said. "We told them about one curiosity incident."
In the incident, he said, Belinda's daughter, Sara Bloodworth, had gone to the restroom. Belinda had stepped a few feet around the corner of the room the children were in to answer the corded telephone.
When Sara returned from the bathroom, three of the 4-year-old boys, including the Dupuys' son, had pulled their pants down. Sara reacted as any 10-year-old would, Jeff said, telling them they were going to get in trouble. Then she told them to pull their pants back up, but one child was having trouble, he said. The girl helped the child, and in the process her hand brushed the boy's penis, Jeff said.
When the boy went home, he simply told his mother he had been touched. The mother contacted the Dupuys, who explained the details. The mother, who originally was concerned by her son's report, realized the incident was not one of sexual abuse, Jeff said.
After telling the DCFS caseworker about the incident and naming the children involved, the agency interrogated each child. The stories the children told the caseworker were beyond belief, Jeff said.
"They came out saying Sara was basically molesting them," he said.
At the time, he said, he was suspicious about the questioning of the children, and he said he continues to wonder whether suggestions were planted in the children's heads.
"No other kids ever said anything like this," he said. "Just the ones who we told to DCFS and they questioned."
They were surprised when DCFS formally accused them of neglect.
When a report is made to DCFS, the agency investigates. If there is no apparent evidence, the accused person is cleared. If the agency believes there is reason for the report to be accurate, the accused is declared "indicated."
Until a week ago, an indication based on a DCFS report meant a person no longer could work around children in Illinois. It also carries with it social stigma and can be damaging to a business.
Though the indication of neglect was a surprise, the couple was shocked when a DCFS supervisor told them she planned to indicate Sara for a long list of sexual abuse charges, including sexual molestation and sexual penetration.
"There were all these charges and there wasn't the first shred of evidence," he said. The indication would have been a black mark on her name, at least within the state, for 50 years, Jeff said.
"Basically, they tried to shut us down by indicating us with neglect, but when they couldn't do that because we hadn't violated anything in our license, they slapped the sex charges on Sara," Jeff said.
DCFS then said the couple could continue to operate if they kept Sara away from home while children were being kept and ceased operation at 9 p.m. They also recommended counseling for Sara.
"The 'Protective Plan' killed our night care," Jeff said. "We lost about half of our business there, because there are a lot of people here in Carterville who work second or third shift."
As part of the plan, the Dupuys had to hire a person to watch them watch the children, he said. Paying that person meant Jeff had to take a second job in Carbondale.
Plus, once the public learned there were charges of sexual abuse, they lost even more business, he said.
"Sexual abuse in the day care business is like food poisoning in a restaurant," Jeff said.
At DCFS' request, Sara began going to psychiatric evaluations conducted by David Matthews of Herrin. At the end of three to four months, Matthews wrote an evaluation in which he determined Sara to be a "normal kid," Jeff said.
But it took nearly three years from the time DCFS first contacted the Dupuys to the time the family was cleared of all accusations through the DCFS appeals process. By that time, the family was bankrupt.
Jeff and Belinda said that after Sara first was accused, she was mistreated at school by classmates for several years. Now 16, she wants to help children in similar situations who have been accused as part of DCFS investigations.
And after his experiences with the DCFS appeals process, Jeff said he wants to talk with other people who have ideas about changing how DCFS operates.
"I don't think any one person could have the answer, but if you get together a group of people, they can brainstorm and think up a lot of good ideas," he said.