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Decent People

Is Illinois an accessory to child murder?

Illinois Times

November 9, 1993

Dead babies, broken families, drug use and gangs, pregnant 12-year-olds—children in Illinois do not need a Dickens to chronicle their misery but a Dante. The special panel commissioned by the Cook County Chief Judge in 1993 to investigate the strangling of a little boy by his deranged mother in effect found the state's child welfare system an accessory to murder. Such episodes are usually taken as ipso facto proof of the need for a more energetic state effort on their behalf. But those grim stats may be proof instead that Illinois's child welfare agencies already do too much, but badly.


Improving child welfare in Illinois means more than improving the state's Department of Children and Family Services, just as improving DFCS means more than implementing court-ordered "reforms" that neither expand nor improve the agency's programs. Requiring DCFS to actually administer its own programs amounts to radical reform in Illinois terms, but at best that merely makes the inadequate more efficient, not more effective.


The culprits are several, including a General Assembly that has given DCFS an impossible child protection mandate, and a state employees union that defines incompetence as any standard practice that can't be blamed on someone else. Yes, yes, there are many good people working in agencies such as DCFS. Their goodness is not in dispute; their competence is. As Sir Toby Kind of New Zealand—a pre-Spock revolutionary in infant care—once put it, "We must remember that in the rearing of children ignorance tempered by kindness is not sufficient."


The complaint is general that the state's child protection system does not work. In fact it works quite well—in meeting the needs of its actual rather than its putative clients. It keeps unemployment low in the helping professions, it keeps the costs of coping with social disorder agreeably low to the taxpayer, it provides a platform from which governors and legislators may trumpet their concern for the unlucky. Bureaucrats love it; if we see more programs to improve service delivery than we see improved service delivery, it is because the system is set up to run programs rather than deliver services. It does all this at the expense of a constituency—children --that is incapable of redress save for their withdrawal from the society that wronged them.


Putting an abused or neglected child into DCFS custody changes her situation rather than improves it. One kind of abuse or neglect is merely traded for other kinds of abuse. (Inadequate health care is one; so are protracted separations under a foster care system exploited by clients and caseworkers alike as an adjunct to an inadequate welfare system.) Grown-ups may decline to judge well-intentioned child abuse actionable under the criminal statutes, but most children are not mature enough to appreciate such distinctions.


The Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago recent studied Illinois's family preservation program and confirmed that what happens in the family is not always the result of what happens to the family. Indeed, the reverse often is true. A genuinely preventive approach would ameliorate the causes—mainly economic change and social isolation—of family breakdown. Kids don't need a better DCFS, they need better moms and dads, and that takes real jobs paying real wages and houses in real neighborhoods.


Taxpayers will not countenance such improvements at their expense. That is cheap. We also direct the efforts of our bureaucracies from problems they can solve—running public works programs, handing out money—to problems they cannot, such as fixing broken families. That is stupid. And in our Puritan anxiety to not reward the undeserving, we punish the innocent. That is sinful.


Nothing about today's child welfare controversies is new, except our ignorance of how old these problems are. Most of the "new" ideas being floated in Illinois have in fact been tried before in the state. Reform school is being reborn as today's "residential school," and about the only difference between old‑fashioned "friendly visit" case work and "family preservation"‑style intervention is the name—and the cost.


Rethinking kids' programs might do more good than refinancing or reorganizing them. A recent example is the attempt by the Joyce Foundation to redefine handgun violence (the leading killer of teen-aged males, remember) as a public health crisis rather than merely a law enforcement issue.


The orphanage is being revived (or rather reinvented) as a means of dealing with unwanted children. Today's well-managed examples bear little resemblance to their sorry predecessors, being usually small dormitory-like facilities with high kid-to‑staff ratios. Unfortunately they aren't cheap, and while the savings in avoided social costs from crime or dependence would seem to make the economics of the new orphanage more attractive over the long term, neither politicians nor bureaucrats keep books that way.


If Illinois cannot or will not spend more on kids, then it should spend what it is willing to spend where—and when—it will do the most good. Why not push the state's traditional 12‑year commitment to schooling far forward in the lives of kids, from ages 5–18 to ages 0–13? Instead of publicly-supported high schools that are increasingly expensive and irrelevant, spend the money on infant nutrition, parent training, health screening, and enrichment programs, and child care for working parents. That would leave work, apprenticeships, and non-mandatory high-school‑level schooling as the alternatives for adolescents; arguably, that would improve child programs at both ends of the age spectrum. 


As for DCFS, it cannot be said to prevent child abuse, even if it functioned the way it is supposed to, since a child must be abused to come to its attention in the first place. Nor does DCFS cure, at least as presently administered, because its incompetence almost always makes bad situations worse.


The wiser policy would be to disband the agency. Child abuse is a crime, and might be better treated as a crime rather than as bad parenting, with intervention left to a specialized agency of law enforcement trained to recognize the difference.


Not practical? Of course it isn't. Doing good never is. Decent people will ask, But who will protect the children? To which honest people must reply, who protects them now? ●




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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