Patti Krueger is a stay-at-home mom in Decatur, Illinois. Her husband is a house painter. The couple's second son, Wyatt, was born in 2017 with severe breathing difficulties.
"He was blue," says Krueger.
Wyatt spent nine days in neonatal intensive care. Over the next two years his breathing problems necessitated oxygen treatments, tubes in his ears, and four surgeries, according to Krueger.
Some of his treatments were at a nearby hospital in Peoria. Many hospitals today have a Child Abuse Pediatrician (CAP), a doctor on contract with child protective services. Their job is to be on the lookout for child abuse, including abuse other doctors may have missed. While the CAP at this hospital never met Krueger or worked directly with Wyatt, she reviewed his file and accused the mother of Munchausen syndrome by proxy—in other words, causing or faking a child's illness to get attention.
This CAP's report was all it took for Illinois' Department of Child and Family Services to put into place a "safety plan" to remove the Kruegers' kids. These plans do not require any kind of court order because ostensibly the family "agrees" to it, on pain of potentially having no say over what happens next to their kids. Thus, in March of 2019, when Wyatt was two-years-old and back in the hospital, Krueger's husband and mother-in-law were in his room when a DCFS worker—and four armed police officers—arrived and ordered them out. They were not allowed back in. Wyatt was alone there for four days while DCFS arranged a foster placement, according to Krueger.
DCFS also came for Wyatt's older brother, age 3. He had never been away from them before.
But that's not all: Krueger was also pregnant with their third son at the time. DCFS took him away four hours after she gave birth, according to Krueger.
The family spent 467 days apart. It took an incredible amount of time and money to piece together the evidence that they were not guilty of abuse. In this, they were helped by the Family Justice Resource Center, an Illinois nonprofit founded by Michelle Weidner—a mom who had gone through a similar nightmare ten years earlier. The center helps "families facing wrongful allegations of abuse and neglect, with an emphasis on medically-based allegations," according to its website.
"They were an answer to our prayers," says Krueger.
With the help of FJRC, the Kruegers found an attorney in this field, and a well-respected pediatrician to review Wyatt's files. This doctor found that Wyatt's illness was not imagined or parent-induced. She also said that genetic testing showing Wyatt had Xia-Gibbs syndrome, a rare disease that causes airway issues. The CAP had shrugged off this possibility.
Meanwhile, Krueger, a recovering addict, underwent weekly drug tests, even though her OB-GYN wrote a letter saying she was fine. She also undertook a psychiatric evaluation administered by a state-approved psychologist (but paid for by the Kruegers), which found her to be of sound mind and not inclined to abuse a child. That was a turning point, she told the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law:
After a year of being accused of having Munchausen by Proxy, after a year of being accused of being mentally ill, you start to ask yourself, am I as crazy as they think I am? The testing took three days and that was my biggest turning of relief, that I was not going to let these guys make me doubt myself.
During all this, Krueger and her husband were allowed to visit with their children every Tuesday and Thursday from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m., "with someone sitting with us," says Krueger. "We weren't even allowed to take them to the bathroom." The Kruegers were also not allowed to call their kids.
The children screamed and cried just about every time they were put in the car to leave. When COVID-19 hit, they all met on Zoom—again, with a caseworker watching, according to Krueger.
What did it take to convince the state that this entire case had no merit? In the end, $60,000 in legal fees and expert testimony—money the Kruegers' parents had been saving for retirement.
"And if it cost us this much, I can only imagine what it cost the state," says Krueger.
On July 8, 2020, a family court judge read the evidence and vacated all orders. The children were finally allowed to come home.
Overwhelmed, Krueger turned right around and started volunteering at the Family Justice Resource Center. Over the past year she has helped reunite four families falsely accused of child abuse. She was honored last month as an FJRC "Family Reunification Hero."
But the Kruegers did not emerge unscarred. They have mounted cameras throughout their home so that if one of their boys hurts himself, there would be proof it wasn't child abuse. Understandably, the boys have terrible anxiety. If the kids aren't warned that pizza is coming, hearing the doorbell sends them running to hide.
"Before this happened, we did not believe DCFS was capable of ripping families apart," says Krueger. "We thought they helped people." Her husband had been abandoned by his parents at age three; child services found him and his brother a loving foster home. The Kruegers still believe child services has important work to do, but the system clearly needs stronger guardrails.
The family is now pushing for the legislature to reform the state's child protection laws, as Texas just did. In that state, if parents are accused of abuse based on a medical report, they can now request a second opinion from a specialist in the relevant field. In a case like the Kruegers', that means the parents would be able to consult a respiratory doctor, and child services would have to submit this testimony before getting a court order to take a child into custody.