RESPONDING to the surge in child abuse occurring nationwide, Illinois is bolstering the courts that are often the last line of defense for many mistreated children.
The state legislature recently approved a plan by the circuit court of Cook County, one of the largest court systems in the United States, to create a staff of "hearing officers." An officer will review the case of an abused child before trial and so help the judge reach an efficient and just solution.
This is the first step taken by a new committee - which includes the governor, lawmakers, and judiciary officials - that plans to revamp the Illinois child-welfare system. The measure is aimed at preventing mistakes in administration or litigation that subject a child to continued abuse.
Advocates for mistreated children support the move but say that the juvenile court needs to expand its staff almost across the board in order to adequately handle a flood of cases.
"The judges are hearing 10 times the national average of cases, allocating eight minutes or less to hear the most critical question in a person's life," says Jerome Stermer, president of Voices for Illinois Children.
These advocates worry that after advancing a few narrow, short-term reforms, the state might fail to enact essential, long-term programs that discourage child abuse. Necessary long-term remedies include job training, prenatal care, drug treatment, and education programs, they say. "We are concerned there will be too little focus on prevention programs and programs that are much more complicated and far-reaching will be put off," Mr. Stermer says.
Public officials involved in child welfare say the creation of a hearing staff is crucial for helping the judiciary better cope with the significant rise in child-abuse cases in the past several years. The eight judges in the Cook County juvenile court are each responsible for cases involving 3,000 children. New cases are coming on the docket at an accelerating rate. Some 6,300 additional cases were filed in court last year, a more than threefold increase over the number for 1973.
Courts across the United States also face a deluge of new cases. Some 2,936,000 children were abused in the United States in 1992, an increase of 53 percent since 1985. That means that 45 out of every 1,000 US children were mistreated, according to the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse.
In Illinois, the number of abused and neglected children jumped 33 percent to 43,138 from 1985 to 1992, according to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
Experts disagree on the ultimate reason for the rise in child abuse. …