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The long and traumatic road to exoneration after DCFS wrongfully removes children from home

Patty Krueger
Edith Brady-Lunny
/
WGLT
Patty Krueger in the WGLT studio.

Patty Krueger and her husband were managing a hectic household in October 2017, keeping up with numerous doctor visits for their seriously ill infant son and caring for his older brother, when a call to the state’s child abuse hotline turned their life upside down.

When the baby was about 8 months old, his 30-year-old mother was accused of medical child abuse by subjecting her son to unnecessary medical care, a condition known as Munchausen by Proxy. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services opened an investigation that resulted in the removal of the Kruegers' two sons in March 2019, and a third child born five months later.

The investigation lasted 17 months. The children spent 467 days in foster care.

The Kruegers, who reside in Decatur, have filed a federal lawsuit against child abuse pediatrician Dr. Channing Petrak, OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria where the Pediatric Resource Center that employs Petrak is based, and 10 DCFS workers who were involved at some level in the investigation.

This is a three-part series originally broadcast on WGLT's newsmagazine Sound Ideas in September 2022. The solutions-based reporting is aimed at rethinking how Illinois' child welfare system could work.

In a response filed last week by her lawyers, Petrak denied the allegation that she conspired with DCFS to illegally remove the Kruegers’ children. The doctor who serves as a child abuse consultant to DCFS “is not a state actor and did not act under the color of state law,” said Petrak’s reply.

A spokesman for DCFS and OSF declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing the pending litigation.

“Before we went through this allegation, we were that typical family that knew there was there was good in DCFS,” said Krueger, basing her opinion on her husband Jacob’s adoption as a foster child by “a family who showed him true love.”

In their lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District in Peoria, the Kruegers describe the complex medical treatment their middle child received for Xia-Gibbs syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. As the parents shuttled their son for multiple surgeries and appointments with specialists, DCFS monitored his care.

As part of her duties as medical director of the Pediatric Resource Center, Petrak consulted with DCFS on the Kruegers case. “This tragedy begins with Petrak,” the Kruegers allege in their lawsuit.

As the 60-day required time frame for completion of a DCFS investigation was extended for months, staff documented their inability to conclude the probe without an opinion from Petrak. On March 8, 2019, Petrak wrote in a report “that she was unable to determine whether there was abuse or neglect,” according to the lawsuit.

The Kruegers “were overcome with joy that the 17-month investigation was over, the allegations of medical abuse were 'unfounded,' and their names were cleared of any wrongdoing,” said the court filing.

Later in March 2019, the child was admitted to OSF Saint Francis after repeated emergency room visits for respiratory issues, including pneumonia. On March 25, the boy was moved to a new room at the hospital where patients and others were recorded. The Kruegers say they were not told the move was related to video surveillance of their interactions with their child.

On March 29, as Jacob Krueger and his mother were preparing for the boy’s release, Petrak joined medical staff in the room. According to the Krueger’s lawsuit, Petrak became offended after the Kruegers questioned her attendance and purpose for attending the discharge meeting. They insisted their lawyer be present for any examination of their child by the abuse pediatrician whom they had never met.

Petrak “left the room, as requested, but Petrak was not done with the Krueger family,” said the lawsuit. After she was allowed to return and examine the child, Petrak told the family the decision to send the boy home was “up to DCFS.”

The pediatrician then issued a decision accusing the mother of medical child abuse based on an a video she claims showed Patti Kreuger changing the child’s diaper and refusing to allow hospital staff to check the diaper for feces and urine.

Jacob Krueger contends that hours after Petrak left the room a DCFS worker coerced him to sign a safety plan for the child’s care and ordered him to leave the hospital immediately.

"It’s really important that people trust our children welfare system and trust that it works correctly."
Michelle Weidner, Family Justice Resource Center

Petrak’s finding of medical abuse detailed in an April 1 supplemental report was based on “junk science and personal vendetta,” the parents allege. DCFS took protective custody of the baby and his older brother.

After the children were taken, the Kruegers discovered mold in their home during a construction project. The finding, which may have contributed to the baby’s respiratory distress, was ignored by DCFS as exculpatory evidence. Additional findings in the Krueger’s favor that surgeries had corrected the baby’s breathing problems also were not provided to the Macon County juvenile court handling the Krueger’s case.

On Aug. 13, 2019, the Kreugers’ third son was taken into custody at a Decatur hospital four hours after his birth.

The Kruegers’ children were returned home on July 8, 2020 — after the parents were exonerated in juvenile court of any wrongdoing.

The battle to convince the state that the boys should return home was costly. Mounting legal fees of more than $60,000 used up the couple’s income and retirement accounts belonging to Jacob’s parents; Patti Krueger sold her wedding ring.

Public confidence in DCFS

The Kruegers found support with the Family Justice Resource Center (FJRC), a nonprofit group started in 2018 by Michelle Weidner. The Peoria mother and her family were cleared of a wrongful abuse allegation years earlier involving her infant son.

Placement of children in foster care without justification is harmful to families, said Weidner, but false accusations also weaken public confidence in DCFS.

“It’s really important that people trust our children welfare system and trust that it works correctly,” said Weidner. The heavy reliance of the state on pediatric abuse specialists has contributed to the removal of children for months while inaccurate medical conclusions are scrutinized and reversed, she said.

Mistakes also may keep vulnerable children in harm’s way, said Weidner, who is FJRC's executive director. “As people learn about the prevalence and impact of wrongful allegations, I think there’s a collective loss of faith in the child welfare system and there’s an increase in reluctance to make the hotline call.”

Weidner and Krueger have been recognized as “Reunification Heroes” by the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law for their efforts to help parents in Illinois and other states. Krueger has helped 21 families who lost their children based on wrongful allegations of abuse.

Mistakes by consultants and the child welfare system are not limited to Illinois, said retired Bloomington lawyer Alan Novick, current president of the FJRC.

“We began getting calls from Illinois. We now get calls from all over the United States because there aren’t a lot of resources,” said Novick.

The center has reunited more than 100 children with their families who were wrongfully accused of abuse since its founding four years ago.

The road to exoneration is long, said Novick, who spent 35 years as an attorney representing parents and children in abuse and neglect court, including parents who were wrongfully accused.

“Most of these cases, when a parent has been wrongfully accused, don’t end in a day or a week or a month. It’s often years and to have your children removed for years when you’ve done nothing wrong is a very traumatic experience. And it lasts a long time.”

The 11 exoneration cases shared a common element: “the failure to honestly consider a different diagnosis,” said Novick. He said children in nine of the cases were found to have a Vitamin D Deficiency and two others had suffered strokes. The role of the resource center is to put parents in touch with the small number of medical experts qualified to review and dispute initial abuse assessments.

The Kruegers are still recovering from the financial repercussions of the child welfare case. Their children are doing well physically, but are “clingy and don’t trust anybody,” said their mother.

The fear of another abuse accusation follows the Kruegers to every medical appointment with their son. Electronic medical records kept by OSF and available to other providers continue to reflect the inaccurate information that the parents abused their children, according to the court filing.

“If I had to take him in this afternoon and they put his name into the computer, the medical chart states he’s an abused child so I’m constantly flagged and there’s a target on my back,” said Krueger, adding that such fear is “not anything that any parent should have to endure.”

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Corrected: November 16, 2022 at 9:34 AM CST
Family Justice Resource Center has reunited more than 100 children with their families who were wrongfully accused of abuse in the last four years.
Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.