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. 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. A growing awareness of children's rights also may mean a higher percentage of child-abuse cases are reported, experts say.
The recent move by the Illinois legislature was prompted by the much-publicized death of three-year-old Joseph Wallace in Chicago. After being repeatedly returned home by the judges of Juvenile Court, the boy was allegedly hanged by his mother last April.
The Wallace case, and reports of similar lapses last year by the court and DCFS, prompted Judge Harry Comerford, chief judge of the circuit court, to organize Gov. Jim Edgar, leading lawmakers, and county officials in creating the Family Justice Coordinating Council.
The council meets regularly and reviews proposals for reforming the child-welfare system and preventing child abuse. The creation of the staff of hearing officers was the first measure adopted.
``It appears that throughout the country the number of dysfunctional families has increased,'' Judge Comerford says. ``None of us can ignore that, we've got to try to do something.''
The hearing officers are intended to help soften the adversarial tone among attorneys in child-abuse cases. The Wallace case showed that adversarial litigation can encourage attorneys to withhold vital details potentially harmful to their clients. But the child would benefit if such details came out, the judge says.
``We spend too much time trying to figure out if some abuse happened rather than determining what is in the best interest of the child from now on,'' Stermer says. By clarifying information at pretrial meetings, the hearing officers will also help narrow the issues in a case. They will reduce the time each case appears before a judge, thereby freeing up overbooked court rooms, the judge says.
Comerford says the circuit court favors the establishment of a family court to handle cases of abuse, adoption, and other family matters under one roof and assigning a judge to review all the litigation involving a given family. However, the state now lacks the resources to establish such a court, according to Comerford. ``People have been taxed to the top of their heads and to try and build additional facilities for new programs: I don't think it will be the appropriate time to do it,'' he says.
The council is also considering ways to solve family conflicts involving children before the disputes reach courtrooms. The council needs to ``address dysfunctional families before they become a statistic in the court system,'' says the judge.