States Attorney discusses abuse & neglect caseload

Beth Welbers
Geneseo Republic
Frightened teddy bear covers its eyes

Newly elected State's Attorney Cathy Runty gets emotional when she speaks about the record spike in abused and neglected child cases that have come to her office in the past year.

"Some days you just have to go home after work and hug your kiddos a little tighter,"  said the mother of four after a recent presentation to the Henry County Board highlighting the rise in cases, the highest in the 20 years the office have been tracking the statistics.

Runty, who has only been in office since early December, campaigned on making juvenile cases a priority. A juvenile is any child under the age of 18.

But, as the cases keep rolling in -- now more than 70 new cases have been opened -- she is only now realizing how deep the problem runs, and how much the 2020 pandemic and case backlogs have exacerbated it. While trials are scheduled to resume March 1, said she some cases will take years to grind their way through the system.  

And that number to the 300 cases that were already open, each representing a child in distress. Adding to the difficulty is the mother could have several children, some with different fathers.  She said a child's case may be resolved differently than other siblings depending on individual family circumstances.

A typical abuse-reporting scenario starts with a call to DCFS from a mandated reporter -- a nurse, teacher, daycare worker,  a doctor -- who may observe suspected abuse, and is required to report it.  DCFS and the police will respond to the complaint,  police will gather any evidence and take photos, while DCFS will interview the minors and parents to determine if the charges have merit. 

Should they determine that the children be removed from the home, DCFS will look into placement in temporary custody, or foster care. At this point the juvenile case is opened. The judge is asked to make DCFS the decision maker on behalf of the children. Visitation privileges are determined.  All of the proceedings take place behind closed doors, and the cases are not open to the public out of respect for the privacy of the families involved.

According to Runty, foster care looks a lot different than it has in the past. If the situation permits, the children will be placed with a responsible family member, a willing neighbor, babysitter or family friend. Officials look for someone who is familiar to the child and sometimes that is a non-custodial parent.

Then the underlying problems are addressed, she said. The parents are required to attend parenting classes, anger management, drug rehabilitation, whatever the social worker feels will improve the ability to parent. Regular interaction with the social worker determines the level of progress being made in returning a child to the home.

Runty said she feels a large portion of the reason for the recent spike in cases is the prevalence of drugs, particularly meth in the area. 

The focus of the States Attorney's office in these kinds of cases is to have consistency in the case, she said. Runty's office has three attorneys who have experience in abuse and neglect cases. Having the same attorney at the hearings insures that the attorney knows the stories and how the situation has developed. It creates a relationship with the family, and the experience is invaluable. 

Abuse cases will likely take years. Runty stated that in her experience it is not unusual for a Juvenile abuse or neglect case to take up to 3 years before it is resolved, either with returning the child to the home, or termination of parental rights, and the child put up for adoption. The goal is to return the child to the parent, and these rights are highly protected.

In the event the child is determined better off not returning to the home,  Runty stated "When push came to shove, and the parents' rights were to be terminated, the look of shock and horror is the same on every parent's face."

Bill McCaffrey, of the Rock Island office of DCFS, found that of the cases that come before their agency in 2020, the agency looked into 430 complaints in Henry County.  Of that figure, 266 cases were considered unfounded, and 164 that were considered "indicated," requiring actions by DCFS.  That figure is a substantial increase over the previous year, 2019, which showed a total of 321 complaints, 220 unfounded and 120 indicated.  The year 2018 was comparable, with 342 reported complains, 252 unfounded and 90 actionable. 

Juvenile delinquency cases also come into this classification. The delinquency system has a series of levels built into it, starting with simple crimes, shoplifting or damage to property. It is at this level that law enforcement, truancy officers, or other authority figures take the lead. 

Often apologies, restitution or community service is the answer, but the focus is to rehabilitate the minor, Runty said.

More serious cases are referred to the States Attorneys office, in the event the minor is involved in burglary, damage to property, sex offenses or other serious matters. A Juvenile case is opened and a criminal case is opened. The minor will be appointed a lawyer to represent him. They then proceed as for an adult criminal case, either with a judge, as in a bench trial or negotiation. Should the minor be remanded to custody, the Mary Davis Home in Galesburg is the first step.  Rarely, but in the event that the first step does not  work,  there is a juvenile youth prison, where the minor will remain until they turn 21, or do become rehabilitated. 

Henry County States Attorney Cathy Runty