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Body Counts

Why the State of Illinois is a lousy parent

Illinois Times

January 9, 1981

The real scandal of Illinois's chronic inattention to its dependent children is that it is so seldom a scandal.


Gov. Edgar has proposed another law that will save the children. Assuming it survives the General Assembly, henceforth Illinois's child welfare agencies will place the interests of abused and neglected children above those of their parents and of bureaucrats.


It has been observed that the prospect of a hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully, and indeed it does, especially when the hanging is done by three-year-old boys like Joseph Wallace and the concentrating is done by Illinois politicians. Wallace, you may still remember, is the boy who was murdered last April when his deranged mother hanged him from a doorway with a telephone cord. The boy had been returned—again—to her custody by a juvenile court judge solicitous of the integrity of one of the few institutions guilty of subjecting children to more mischief than even the courts—the American family.


We are entitled to be skeptical of the method of Mr. Edgar's initiative if not his motive. The agent he selected to enforce this new priority is the same court system that was an accessory to Joseph Wallace's murder. Child welfare experts have already made plain their opinion that Edgar's child-first policy will not solve the problem of bungled child abuse casework, forgetting perhaps that Edgar's child abuse problem and the experts' child abuse problem are very different. The experts' problem is how to reduce the incidence of abuse; the governor's problem is how to deflect the political blame for the state's failure to reduce the incidence of abuse.


For all the rhetoric about the sanctity of the family, the state is not at all reluctant to intervene in the lives of families reported to be mistreating their children. At present roughly 33,000 Illinois children are in some kind of substitute care after having been taken from their families; as recently as 1990 the number was 22,000.


Pressure to remove a child from a difficult home situation is almost irresistible. Illinois's Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act requires the agency to both protect the best interests of the child and to preserve family life for their benefit, but the law and agency practice assume that if the two goals are in conflict the preservation of the family must yield to the safety of the child. As the Citizens Council on Children noted in a 1988 report, doing both requires "delicate balance." But balance is hard to achieve in an environment in which the wrong decision ends up on the six o'clock news.


Illinois honors the doctrine of parens patriae in the abstract but resists it in practice to such an extent that, were the state to police itself, it would have to be reported as a derelict parent. Neither meanness or incompetence per se is sufficient to explain Illinois's perpetually poor performance as a surrogate parent. Rather it is a profound ambivalence about the state's role.


Nineteenth-century policy assumed that family failure was an individual (or ethnic or racial, in the case of outcast groups) failure rather than a social one. Until well into the 20th century, women who pleaded for admission to the poorhouse—that era's AFDC—were expected to give up their rights to their children, who were placed in orphanages or placed for adoption. The obverse notion—that family woes reflect societal problems—became a commonplace among mainstream sociologists and social service professionals in the 1960s.


While the law shifted in its opinion of whether the father or mother was the "natural" parent, it continued to favor either one over non-biological guardians except in cases where the formers' unfitness was flagrant.


The result is a muddle. DCFS policy is to keep siblings in foster or adoptive homes together whenever possible. But the Illinois Appellate Court in February ruled that judges do not have to order prospective adoptive parents to allow visits by a child's birth parents or siblings as a condition of adopting that child. Public Guardian, who represented the children in the three cases involved, complained that to deny visitation to older children was not in the best interests of the child, as provided for under the state law.


The abuse of children is as much a phenomenon of legislative definition as it is of family dysfunction. In 1990, roughly 59 percent of reported instances of child maltreatment were for "neglect" of various kinds, mainly of children lacking supervision or health care or exposed to "environmental neglect" such as a dirty house. Often this "neglect" results from the simple poverty or temporary predicament of the family, such as eviction. A suit by the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago alleged that the agency is too eager to remove children in cases of neglect that, while meeting the legal definitions, pose no immediate threat to a child's health or safety. (DCFS is working under a federal consent order resulting from suit that obliges it in such case to help the whole family find emergency shelter rather than take the children away.) A system that fails to dependably distinguish between mess and murder is not a system that will satisfy even the low expectations of Illinoisans. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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