Thursday, April 3, 2008

Family Values

originally published in the Hartford Advocate June 14, 2007

Family Values

Constitutional protections don’t apply to Department of Children and Families investigations

by Jennifer Abel

When accused of a crime you’re guaranteed certain constitutional rights, like the right to face and confront your accusers, have a jury trial, know the charges against you and see what evidence the state has to support them. But none of these apply if you’re investigated by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families.

"The [DCF] is not a law enforcement agency and does not charge citizens with crimes," department spokesman Gary Kleeblatt said in an e-mail. "Therefore, the agency has no involvement in the enforcement of constitutional rights that relate solely to criminal activity (jury trial, confront accuser)."

"It’s a gimmick," charges Michael Agranoff, an Ellington-based attorney who specializes in defending parents in DCF cases. "Making [these cases] civil instead of criminal is a gimmick to get around the fourth, fifth and sixth amendments to the Constitution."

While DCF does not have the authority to impose prison sentences, Agranoff says: "The ultimate penalty you can face [with DCF] is TPR, Termination of Parental Rights. … Most people I know would rather spend a year in jail than lose custody of their kids."

David and Sherry Preusch of Trumbull faced that threat when they started homeschooling their son William (now 12) in March 2006. William has "functional abdominal pain," a not-uncommon childhood ailment that can almost be described as overactive stomach butterflies: When the boy suffered extreme anxiety, this manifested itself as severe gastro-intestinal pains. And since much of William’s anxiety stemmed from social problems (like bullies) at school, it made sense to his parents to pull him out and educate him at home.

"We tried to work with the school, have him assigned to a class where he had a lot of friends [rather than] a class where he didn’t know anybody," said Sherry.

"The school refused to work with us," David added.

There’s no point in asking for the school’s side of the story; due to the confidentiality laws surrounding children, neither school nor DCF personnel are allowed to comment on specific cases. What might the school say if it could speak on its own behalf? Perhaps that its overworked employees, already facing demands from dozens of parents, had little patience for requests they might have interpreted as "give my little one special treatment lest he get a tummyache."

But if that were the case, the school would have viewed it as a mercy when the Preusches pulled William out. That’s not what happened.

"On Wednesday, I think March 1, we had a meeting with the school," Sherry Preusch recalled. "That Tuesday or Wednesday, my husband sent them a letter, certified mail, return receipt requested, saying we’d be homeschooling our son in accordance with the state statutes … [the school] reported us to DCF on the seventh."

This in itself is not remarkable. "Parents who withdraw their children from public schools to start homeschooling are being reported to DCF for educational neglect," says Deborah Stevenson, the Preusches’ attorney (and the director of National Home Education Legal Defense).

Attorney Agranoff agrees, and explains why. "This isn’t [written] DCF policy, but … DCF considers the schools the first line of defense [against child abuse]."

Kleeblatt insists the department has no bias against homeschoolers. "Homeschooling is not a form of neglect." But DCF still must investigate if a school reports a family.

Back to the Preushes: after the school reported them to DCF, a social worker arrived at their home. "She told me we were being investigated for educational neglect," Sherry Preusch said. "She said the school said William had 34 unexcused absences."

Here’s where things started getting strange. The Preusches showed the Advocate the school’s attendance records for their son: there were indeed 34 absences, but all listed as excused. Why did the school report otherwise? The Preusches had no idea, but figured once they showed the attendance record to the social worker, the investigation would end.

They were wrong. The social worker wanted the Preusches to sign releases granting access to William’s medical records.

"We couldn’t figure out why they needed the medical records," David said. "We gave authorization … our attorney said if we didn’t, they’d kick the investigation up to a higher level because it looks like we’re hiding something."

On dragged the investigation. The Preusches didn’t know why suspicions of educational neglect led to so many questions about doctor visits, and demanded to see the file DCF had against them.

"We were told we had no right to see the files," David recalled.

"Parents always have the right to see evidence against them," Kleeblatt counters.

On April 13, 2006, the Preusches finally received word that DCF had unsubstantiated the claims. But not until May 3 did the Preusches see their files and learn the truth: though the investigation started as one of educational neglect, DCF actually suspected Sherry Preusch had Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy, a mental disorder wherein parents deliberately make their children sick in order to get attention and sympathy from medical personnel.

Why should DCF claim to be investigating one charge, while actually investigating another? "Without reading the actual report, we can’t comment on this case," Kleeblatt said. "However, it is very common for additional claims to surface after an investigation has been opened."

No doubt, but the Preusches knew nothing of the additional claim until they saw their file, three weeks after the case was over. Why wasn’t it given to them sooner?

"DCF receives 30 – 50 requests a week for copies of case records," Kleeblatt wrote. "We make every effort to provide them to the client within 30 days. However, state and federal confidentiality laws are quite strict. … Information about persons other than the requestor or the requestor’s children must be redacted. This is a time-consuming process and a large case record may take weeks to properly redact."

In other words: to ensure families don’t know who’s accusing them, sometimes the files must be withheld for several weeks. Meanwhile, Kleeblatt says DCF investigations must be completed within 45 days. He didn’t conclude, "therefore, parents with large case records aren’t likely to get their files while their cases are still active," but that’s the only way the numbers add up.

Connie Kain of Ridgefield had a DCF experience similar to the Preusches’. When Kain adopted her two daughters from Russia, she didn’t know the girls had emotional problems stemming from their early years in hellish Russian orphanages.

"They were never played with, never picked up, never held, never made eye contact." Kain said. Denied these vital emotional connections as babies, Kain’s daughters find it hard to make them now: "They hate adults, hate people trying to love them, and think all adults are out to get them." Since her daughters’ school couldn’t or wouldn’t meet the girls’ special needs, Kain pulled them out for homeschooling, and the school reported the family to DCF.

As with the Preusches, Kain was originally told the investigation dealt with charges of educational neglect; only later did she discover she was being investigated for emotional neglect as well. And she never saw her file or the evidence against her until well after the case was closed.

"DCF never gave me anything in writing … [one day] I asked them if I could record the meeting … and the social worker got incredibly upset, and walked out to get her supervisor. The supervisor was hostile: ‘No, no, you don’t tape my social worker.’"

"There is no law that requires DCF to permit conversations to be recorded," Kleeblatt said. "There is no official DCF policy … decisions are made on a case-by-case basis."

"DCF does an important job," Michael Agranoff says. "Children do need protection ... But DCF can do its job without resorting to extra-legal, unconstitutional tactics."