Diane L. Redleaf
A. Introduction to the Family Defense Center’s Model for Family Defense
This article discusses the key ingredients to the success of an unusual family defense organization, the Chicago-based Family Defense Center (the “Center”), which I founded in 2005 after a long career at both a legal services office and a public interest law firm. The Center uses a hybrid public interest law firm/legal services/pro bono network model, along with a sliding scale fee-for-service program, to fulfill its mission of advocating for justice for families in the child welfare system. The Center is devoted to addressing the needs of families, especially families who are targets of child protection investigations. By design, the Center works in a unique and highly specialized niche. But because child protection investigations arise from a wide range of allegations against family members, from domestic violence, to medically complex cases involving fractures and head injuries, to claims of sexual abuse, the practical and substantive expertise of the Center is very broad.
In addition to representing family members in 400 to 600 individual direct service cases each year, the Center has been counsel in over a dozen federal civil rights cases and has won many precedential appellate cases. Center-created precedents have tightened vague definitions of child neglect, set limits on the removal of children based on constitutional grounds, limited presumptions of abuse in medically complex cases, created strong due process rights limiting child abuse and neglect findings against parents and family members, and protected people who work with children from the blacklisting that follows from a wrongful child abuse or neglect finding. Thousands of families have benefited from the Center’s systemic reform work, including the direct exoneration of over 26,000 people from the Illinois Child Abuse Registry through a 2013 Illinois Supreme Court decision and a class action suit that followed it. The Center’s overall individual hearing win rate is approximately 80%.