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Cuts threaten child protection system: lawyers

Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by Stephanie Potter

The proposed elimination of juvenile court hearing officers has some attorneys worried about the effects on abused and neglected children.
''It's too bad when one of the success stories faces the ax,'' said Diane C. Geraghty, director of the Civitas Child Law Center at Loyola University Chicago School of Law.
Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans included the cuts in his 2007 budget request. The proposal would eliminate 14 hearing officers, for a savings of $1.17 million.
County Board President Todd H. Stroger asked officeholders to make substantial cuts in an effort to close a $500 million budget deficit. He has pledged not to recommend a tax increase.
Budget hearings are ongoing. By law, the budget must be passed by Feb. 28.
Evans said the decision to cut hearing officers was not an easy one, but was necessary because of the county's deficit. He said when the hearing officer program started in the mid-1990s, there was a backlog of about 35,000 cases in the Child Protection Division. Now, there are between 7,000 and 9,000 pending cases annually.
''We're at a point now where the judges can handle the balance of cases alone if they have to,'' Evans said.
Geraghty said the hearing officers fill a vital role. Hearing officers, who submit recommended orders to judges, conduct permanency hearings to ensure that children in foster care find long-term homes.
''The number of cases in the child protection system is down,'' Geraghty said. ''What that has meant is that the judges for the first time in a decade have been able to meet national standards for spending time on cases.''
Without the hearing officer system in place, Geraghty fears that permanency hearings could become a formality. She also expressed concern about the effect of cuts to the state's attorney's and public defender's offices on the child protection system.
''I have concerns about the entire system imploding and putting us back where we were a decade ago,'' Geraghty said.
At that point, she said, there existed what was known as ''foster care drift,'' or children growing up in the system without anyone making sure they received the services the judge intended.
''Permanency legislation was meant to ensure accountability by stakeholders,'' she said.
Cook County Public Guardian Robert F. Harris said the hearing officers were brought on board following a lawsuit his office filed in the early 1990s due to a backlog of abuse and neglect cases. The public guardian represents children in those cases.
Harris, whose own office could lose about 15 staff members in the budget cuts, said he would like to see some hearing officers kept on the job.
''Obviously, all of these cuts are going to affect my clients and their families,'' Harris said. ''It's going to cause a lot of delay in our abilities to be able to react quickly and effectively to be able to protect children.''
In his budget address last week to the Cook County Board's Finance Committee, State's Attorney Richard A. Devine raised the issue.
Devine said Child Protection Division judges now hear 2,673 cases a year, while the hearing officers have a caseload of 6,409.
''Between the hearing officers being cut and the public guardian being cut, there is going to be an impact on the court, there is going to be an impact on our office and there is going to certainly be an impact on the judges and their ability to handle their case loads,'' Devine said.
Devine compared the Child Protection Division to offensive linemen in football.
''If everything goes right and all the monitoring is right and things happen correctly, nobody notices,'' Devine said. ''But if you make a mistake and a child dies, it's headline news.''

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