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
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. However, most of them say children are increasingly
mistreated because of rising narcotics use, economic hardship, and
the fraying bonds between the members of many families. …