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Cook County's house of abuse

Sunday, October 01, 2006
Chicago Tribune
Editorial

This time the issue isn't corrupt hiring or illicit contracts at one of Cook County's most vile outposts. No, this time the issue is allegations of violent physical abuse against children--abuse perpetrated by employees of Cook County, in the name of Cook County residents.

Voters in this county tend not to get too excited as Election Day approaches: We have our loyalties--by party, by ethnicity, by familiarity--and that's how we vote. You have to wonder, though, if at some point citizens feel enough shame to install a new administration that won't tolerate abuse at the county's Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Put short: When will taxpayers demand a housecleaning at a county facility that gave child-beaters power over children?

The Tribune reported Friday that a federal grand jury has demanded photographs, internal reports, complaint forms, witness statements and other documents from the detention center. The grand jury is stepping up its investigation of alleged violence and abuse at the county facility, which houses 400 boys and girls ages 10 to 16.

Don't confuse this criminal probe with an inquiry by another federal grand jury now exploring hiring at the detention center and other Cook County facilities. That's the unfolding scandal that had FBI agents raiding county personnel offices and hauling away evidence on Sept. 20.

At the juvenile center, says Cook County Board member Forrest Claypool, "It sounds as if [the feds] are expanding and ratcheting up their investigation to take into account all of the abuses ... from financial corruption to the beatings and mistreatment of the juvenile detainees."

Good. U.S. District Judge John Nordberg has moved at maddeningly slow speed to force improvements at the juvenile center through a consent decree. Yet, earlier this year, even Nordberg chastised county officials for their failure to address reports of violence against the children.

If county officials feel free to flout civil constraints, maybe criminal charges would get their attention. Our hope is that grand jurors look beyond the juvenile center itself to the blindered county administrators who for years let child abuse fester on the taxpayers' dime.

Given the recent public corruption convictions in state government and at Chicago's City Hall, you'd think a do-the-right-thing panic would be sweeping through county government. The place teems with witnesses to serial crimes.

But talk to enough county insiders and you instead find a serene sense that this too shall pass. Most voters won't bother to show up for the Nov. 7 election, the thinking goes. And after that non-event, Brigadoon cozies back to sleep.

Maybe so. Or maybe enough people will finally decide they no longer want to be complicit partners in mistreating vulnerable kids.



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