For the Good of the Group: Using Class Actions and Impact Litigation to
Turn Child Welfare Policy into Practice in Illinois
By Emma McMullen
The Children’s Bureau, a division of the Federal Department of Health and Human
Services, has defined child welfare as “a group of services designed to promote the well-being of
children by ensuring safety, achieving permanency, and strengthening families to care for their
children successfully.”1 Considering this definition of child welfare, it makes sense to put children
at the center of any child welfare legal analysis as well as making them the primary concern of
family law. 2 Meeting children’s needs should be the goal of policy initiatives within child welfare
and family law because doing so promotes justice toward the next generation.3 However, the
current rhetoric of child welfare policy debates often focuses on adults’ responsibilities in
parenting and guardianship—both the responsibilities of the parents themselves and the state when
it acts as a guardian through child welfare services.4 All children deserve and need to be heard,
and this article will argue that child welfare laws should reflect that concept.
Unfortunately, children affected by child welfare policy frequently go unheard because
they have been alienated from the creation of the system they ended up in. These children are
essentially excluded from the system when their well-being is governed by laws that they have not
had a say in making.
An alternate approach to traditional policy change within the child welfare system is to use
class action lawsuits or impact litigation. Class actions and impact litigation are lawsuits that are
filed by an individual or a small group of people who represent a larger group of people impacted
by a practice.5 They can bring about larger policy shifts by demanding change in future treatment
of that class. A study by Children’s Rights, Inc. and the National Center for Youth Law found that
over the past few decades class action lawsuits positively impacted the child welfare system in
twelve jurisdictions they studied.6 Documented outcomes of class action litigation include
enforcing quality assurance, expanding training, and increasing funding.7 Therefore, class actions
are proven to be an alternative to traditional policy change within the realm of child welfare given
the success they have had in reaching these outcomes on behalf of children.
This article will provide a brief history of the child welfare system nationally and within
the state of Illinois. It will examine child welfare class action and impact litigation as an alternative
to traditional legislative policy change in Illinois, focusing on four major efforts for reform: The
1 How the Child Welfare System Works, CHILD WELFARE INFORMATION GATEWAY: CHILDREN’S BUREAU, U.S
DEP’T OF HEALTH & HUM. SERV. (Feb. 2013), https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/cpswork.pdf.
2 Barbara Bennet Woodhouse, Hatching the Egg: A Child-Centered Perspective on Parents’ Rights, 14 CARDOZO L.
REV. 1747, 1814 (1993).
3 Id. at 1814, 1838.
4 See generally id. (discussing child welfare rhetoric and how it focuses on parents without giving attention to
5 Improving the Child Welfare Workforce: Lessons Learned from Class Action Litigation, THE HUMAN SERVICES
WORKFORCE INITIATIVE, (Feb 2017) available at
6 Claire Sandt Chiamulera, A Better Workplace: Learning From Class Action Litigation, 26 NO. 2 CHILD L. PRAC.
28, 28 (2007).
7 Id. at 28-30.