When Vito Glazers and the mother of his child couldn't work out a visitation schedule for their then-infant son, he did what many parents do and went to court and asked a judge to intervene.
But when he arrived at the Daley Center court complex in downtown Chicago for the first time last year, Glazers learned that because he and the boy's mother were never married, his case would be heard in the basement, where former storage space had been converted into cramped courtrooms. Divorcing couples or those already divorced facing similar child-custody issues were assigned to better-appointed courtrooms upstairs.
"I've never been to prison, but that's a little like what it felt like," said Glazers, 32, of Mount Prospect. "It was not dignified in any possible way. ... It feels like it's there to psychologically break people."
For years, the last large relic of Illinois' two-tiered system for child support and paternity cases — one court for married couples and a separate one for unmarried parents — lived on in Cook County.
A holdover from the days when state law referred to the children of unwed parents as "bastards," Cook County's Parentage and Child Support Court for years was held in police station courtrooms and other buildings separate from divorce court in downtown Chicago. The court, originally intended as a way to quickly get unwed mothers child support, was moved to the basement of the Loop's Daley Center court complex as part of an informal settlement in a 1993 federal discrimination lawsuit alleging single parents were treated differently than divorcing parents in child custody and support cases.
Even after the move, divorce cases were heard in larger, better-appointed courtrooms upstairs.
But in February, parentage court, as it has long been informally known, was abolished in response to a new round of possible legal action over its constitutionality and an acknowledgment of larger social changes that mean not quite half of the county's child support and custody cases are now brought by unmarried parents. That's up from about 5 percent several decades ago.
"It was kind of a stepchild of the system," longtime domestic relations Judge Thomas Carr said of parentage court. The Domestic Relations Division of Cook County circuit court handles the county's divorce and child custody cases.
Court in converted closets
Experts said Cook County was the only large court jurisdiction in the country, and possibly the only one period, that sent divorcing parents with custody issues through one set of courtrooms and single parents through another. It was a product of Illinois law that for more than a century treated unmarried parents differently.
"There really was a disparate impact (on unmarried parents)," said Christine Hunt, a family law attorney and adjunct professor at John Marshall Law School, where she's a supervising attorney at the family and domestic violence legal clinic. "In some cases these courtrooms were converted closets."
Judge Grace Dickler, who heads the domestic relations division and led the effort to do away with parentage court said, "We wanted to make sure there was no perception of a stigma to children of unmarried parents."
"Forty percent or so of the kids that we deal with minimally are of unmarried parents, so why would we have something different?" the judge added.
Yet before parentage court was closed, only 7 of the 37 domestic relations judges at the Daley Center heard those unwed-parent cases, Dickler said.
Glazers' attorney Jeffrey Leving said the change was welcome and benefits more than just the parents.
"I believe that Chicago is extremely conservative and the court system historically views unwed parents as lesser," he said. "When you have unwed parents being treated like cattle in the basement of the courthouse where the future of their children is being balanced, that hurts their children."
Fewer couples are tying the knot in the first place, which meant a heavier caseload for parentage court, judges and family law attorneys say.
"People are co-habitating in large numbers," said longtime family law attorney Gemma Allen, who said the family-court consolidation has created a feeling "of greater acceptance or respect" for unmarried parents. "It never surprises me what I hear (about parenting arrangements) when I pick up the phone anymore. These are very responsible, very intentional, very concerned co-parents that want what's best for their children.
"I think the court system has changed with the times."
Unconstitutional, and the Bastardy Act
The Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, a nonprofit public-interest group that works on judicial reforms, pushed hard for the change, presenting Dickler a detailed legal analysis in 2014 that found the system constitutionally flawed.
Already, a federal judge in 1993 had found that the county's bifurcated family courts system operated as an unconstitutional "classification system" that treated married — or divorcing — and unmarried parents differently.
Not everyone agrees that there were disparities between divorce and parentage court.
Laura Vallejo, the supervising attorney for Chicago Legal Clinic's parentage and child support desk, said from her windowless office in the Daley Center basement that from her perspective clients were treated the same in both types of courtrooms. The nonprofit clinic provides legal advice and representation to people who can't afford to hire a lawyer.
While the physical setting and busy calls may not have been ideal, she said it was attorneys who were most unhappy because cases assigned to parentage court could take up much of their day.
Like Cook County, child custody and support cases filed by unmarried parents are growing in the collar counties. In Kane and Lake counties, those cases are blended with the regular domestic relations call.
But DuPage County still maintains a separate, 2nd-floor courtroom for unmarried parents working out child custody and support issues. That's because the court system there has a judge specializing in these types of cases, said DuPage County Domestic Relations Presiding Judge John Demling. Those wishing to avoid court altogether can opt for the newly established mediation program designed for unmarried parents.
In Cook County, judges and others said there have been hiccups in the new system, in which all judges hear a mix of cases, including some in the Daley Center basement. Some judges have been receiving a much higher proportion of redistributed cases than others, judges and attorneys say.
Helping move cases along are hearing officers that this year — under new funding from the Cook County Board after the state decided to stop paying for the program — expanded their roles to help parents resolve cases more quickly, taking much of the work on about 5,000 cases from judges, according to the Appleseed Fund.
The county's two-tiered court system grew out of the Bastardy Act of 1845 and its subsequent revisions that — shockingly to the modern ear — labeled the children of unwed mothers "bastards" and in early versions of the law essentially forced moms to relinquish custody of their offspring if the father paid child support.
Before parentage cases were heard in the Daley Center's basement, they were heard in a crowded set of courtrooms across the street. Some were also heard in a South Loop court building when the neighborhood was considered rough, said Allen, the family law attorney, and sometimes a deputy or even judge would walk her to her car when a case ended after dark.
And before that, cases were heard in district police station courtrooms. Longtime family law attorney Paul Feinstein recalled early in his career doing parentage cases in a wood-paneled courtroom at the old, now-demolished Chicago police headquarters at 11th and State streets.
"It's a lot better (now)," he said.
Glazers spent nearly a year in court before reaching a settlement in January, a month before the court consolidation. He said it allows him to have his son one day a week and every other weekend. It's not ideal, Glazers said, but at least he can see his son more.
He won't soon forget his time in the Daley Center basement.
"They pay no attention to you down there — you feel like a file number," Glazers said. "You feel completely unheard and completely helpless."