The House Murphy Built in His Quarter-Century as Cook County Public Guardian, Patrick Murphy Has Helped Shape the Landscape of Child Welfare in Illinois and the Country - for Better and for Worse, Observers Say. Now He's Moving On

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Byline: Dave Orrick Daily Herald Staff Writer

For the past 26 years, there's been one person - and only one - at or near the center of nearly every legal controversy, political debate, tragedy, or investigative series in the realm of child welfare in Illinois: Cook County Public Guardian Patrick T. Murphy.

Now he's leaving.

Some will be glad to see him go. Others will mourn his departure. All agree he'll leave a void.

"Patrick actually managed to make a career out of punching government right in the face - which, in my experience, is occasionally the best way to get its attention," says Ronald Davidson, director of the mental health policy program at University of Illinois-Chicago's psychiatry department. The program has often teamed up with Murphy's office to uncover mistreatment of children at youth homes.

"While there were a few times recently when he picked the wrong fight for the wrong reason, more often than not, his instincts were right on target," Davidson said. "All things considered, I'm going to miss his curmudgeon act."

Next month, Murphy will be sworn in as a Cook County judge. Local news watchers accustomed to a steady bombardment of Murphy bites - his "curmudgeon act" - might be surprised to know this will be the first time in elected office for the 65-year-old father of two, who now lives in Riverside.

But from sparking a national debate on the rights of parents accused of neglect to shining a light on the problem of foster children bouncing from home to home, Murphy's legacy is far more than a collection of plain-spoken jabs at "stupid bureaucracy," a favorite phrase of his.

Street-fighter roots

Murphy grew up in the Irish-American neighborhood surrounding 69th Street and Ashland Avenue on Chicago's South Side. His father worked in the stockyards. His mother cared for their six sons and two daughters.

"Like any ethnic neighborhood," Murphy recalls, he had to be tough.

"It's not that I fought more than anyone else," he says. "It was all segregated, so the Irish fought the Italians, the Italians fought the Polish. None of it made any sense, but that's the way it was.

"When the kid in the schoolyard tried to bully me, I learned early: Punch him right in the nose."

Two of his brothers became priests, and two sisters nuns. Murphy went to seminary school but opted for a career as a social and legal activist. While putting himself through Northwestern University law school in the late 1950s, he worked construction in a mostly black work crew, a group of men he says opened his eyes to racial disparity.

His early career included volunteering for the Peace Corps where he was stationed in Mogadishu, Somalia, and stints as a prosecutor in the Cook County state's attorney's office and as a lawyer for the National Legal Aid and Defender Foundation, and Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago.

In 1971, his legal star took off when he successfully argued Stanley v. Illinois before the U.S. Supreme Court. The landmark case, one of the first sexual discrimination suits ever brought to the high court, greatly expanded fathers' rights.

In 1978, Gov. Jim Thompson appointed him guardian, at the time a part-time, footnote-of-a-position with two workers that assisted the mentally ill.

"In the interview, I asked him, 'What's the guardian's office?' " Murphy says. Then he chuckles mischievously. "The first thing I did was turn around and sue Jim Thompson."

Thus was born the Murphy Method.

The Murphy Method

"I built this office," Murphy says unabashedly. And no one disagrees.

His strategy was a three-pronged pitchfork that he thrust into the torso of the scarecrow of shoddy services and political hackism that typified public care for the least cared-for and most vulnerable: mentally ill senior citizens, and abused and neglected children. …