It's worse than you think

Opinion: Columns

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By Mary Kay O'Grady


Some kids are forced to live with horrible, abusive parents or guardians — even killers, as we learned recently — and there's no end in sight. You will note that I won't say "Justice for A.J." because there is no justice for abused children. One of his placements outside his home was with a family that loved him, but someone in the system made the decision that it was all right to send him back to hell.

The only reason we might know about the death of the little boy in Crystal Lake is that his father reported the boy missing, thus involving the police. And yet the police had already been involved with the family. Maybe Dad wanted to be caught.

I was a CASA volunteer (Court Appointed Special Advocate) in the Cook County Juvenile Court for several years until I really could not stomach any more. CASA volunteers are trained to investigate cases of children who are in the court system because of abuse and neglect. We study the records and visit all of the parties involved in a case — child, parent, foster parent, case worker, group home, etc., to find out what is really going on. Then we appear in court to testify as an advocate for the child only.

Our training was pretty good, but I was troubled then, and horrified now, by the oft-stated goal of CASA and the family courts that the goal is always to return the child to the natural parents, with all the necessary supports: funding, social workers, addiction recovery, transportation, etc. I hear that goal repeated by Dr. Phil and his wife, who are involved in CASA nationally, but I strongly disagree. I only had one case where it was appropriate to return the child to a parent.

In the cases I discuss below, three parents were white, two were Hispanic and two were black.

On my first day in court as a rookie observer, there was a couple sitting in front of me, nicely dressed — good-looking actually. Their petition was to try to get a child returned to them. In the course of testimony, it came out that the father had killed a previous child by throwing the child against a wall, but he had not been convicted. That same day a pretty, petite woman appeared before the judge and was highly insulted when he noted that all five of her children had different surnames. She replied that she was very proud that she knew the names of all five fathers.

In the worst case I had, the mother and father were together, living on the streets, drug-addicted and dealing, and had just had their fifth child. The child had been born with drugs in her system but after treatment was returned to the parents, and the family was relocated to the suburbs. I visited them in their new mobile home, very crowded with them, their children, and other visitors, none of them glad to see me. 

Then I visited the local school district where the children were enrolled. When I looked at the registration materials, sent from another school, there was a male child listed, about 10 years of age. I had never seen him listed in any other records. He had not enrolled in school and the parents said it was a mistake in the records; they had no such child. I decided that I was too scared to continue on the case, but I was asked to take one last case.

She was an eighth-grader, about 14, tall and awkward. Her mother had five younger children, had married a prosperous man, and did not want her oldest daughter in the mix. The girl was placed with an aunt and uncle in a nice house, but she did not want to be there, and skipped school and went out at night without their permission. She was gang-raped and contracted a serious venereal disease. I went with her to a few gynecological appointments, where she was being treated both physically and emotionally. She also revealed that she was gay. Although almost everyone else involved thought that a group home would be the best solution, they also agreed that group homes are awful for troubled kids. She went to a group home. 

My final case was a success, and all of the credit goes to Hephzibah. A young lawyer who knew me from other cases asked me to take the case of a child who had been sexually abused by her father while living in Indiana. I asked the lawyer why the father was not being charged. He said it was unlikely because of the caseload and the fact that he was out-of-state. 

The child had been in and out of mental hospitals, had improved, and was being placed at Hephzibah. And that made all the difference. Through Hephzibah she was enrolled in a District 97 school that accepted all Hephzibah students and had a specialist on staff. Her mother had gotten off drugs, relocated to a far south suburb, and was reunited with her older children. She took two or three trains to visit her daughter for therapy sessions. Older brothers and sisters also visited and participated. I was able to be more active because of her location in Oak Park. 

Before she returned home, she lived for several months with a family in Oak Park to become accustomed to a normal home life. When she was returned home, Hephzibah kept a case worker on the job a good amount of time. If only every abused or neglected kid had Hephzibah.

My conclusions involve abortion and the sanctity of the family — or so-called family.

In many cases we are failing abused children because of our stubborn beliefs that a child is always better off with his natural parents. I expect there's some religious thinking behind that goal, but I don't get it.

I have woman-to-woman questions that will never go away: When you can't take care of your children, treat them violently, or have a partner who is violent, why do you keep having children? When you have no way of caring for a new baby and have abused in the past, why not get an abortion? I think every anti-abortion advocate should sit in court with these cases for at least a whole day.

I don't get why it would be wrong to sterilize two- or three-strike abusers — both men and women. For example, the woman in the Crystal Lake case murdered her son while pregnant with her fourth child.

Since the family courts had many people on the case with that so-called family, why were the children still living in that squalor and abuse? The system failed them.

One factor is that many people involved in an abused/neglected child's case, are underpaid, incompetent and short-term. I did not find that to be the case in the people I worked with in Cook County, but it is certainly the case in McHenry County.

Overworked, for sure. I remember getting off the elevator with a young lawyer who was pushing a four-wheeled cart filled with files for a single case.

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Marlene Scott from Oak Park  

Posted: May 15th, 2019 5:35 PM

Thank you for sharing your personal knowledge of these cases. I don't think that I would last a day doing volunteer work for CASA. It would leave me angry and heartbroken. At least there is hope for children who are served by Hepzibah. And this morning it was reported that Gov. Pritzker has plans to overhaul DCFS. I hope changes come quickly.

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