November 16, 2004

Law school research suggests need for changes Judges to explore new approach to juvenile cases

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. - Research at Southern Illinois University Carbondale's law school could bring about changes in how courts in Illinois handle juvenile court cases.Surveys of how the juvenile court system functions in the First and Second Judicial Circuits show the need for a more collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach with greater communication among those involved in juvenile cases, according to Mary C. Rudasill, clinical director and associate professor at SIUC's law school.

"Better decisions might be made for the family and for the children if more information is shared prior to the court proceedings," Rudasill said.

One suggestion - having a circuit-wide judge who deals primarily with juvenile cases - will be presented to an Illinois Supreme Court study committee on juvenile justice and the state's chief judges conference next month.

Second Circuit Chief Judge George W. Timberlake of Mount Vernon said SIUC's research is the genesis for presenting the idea of circuit-riding judges in juvenile cases. He expects a final recommendation will go to the state Supreme Court and the state's 22 chief judges next spring.

The First and Second circuits comprise 21 counties in Southern and southeastern Illinois.

Chief judges could opt to assign a specific judge to handle juvenile cases throughout the circuit, Timberlake said, but the provision would have more credence if the idea receives a favorable review from the state Supreme Court and his fellow chief judges.

Unlike other cases that come before the court, juvenile cases involving abuse and neglect have components of criminal and civil law. Timberlake said he believes that experienced juvenile court judges already rely on communication among social workers, attorneys and families during proceedings. The survey responses suggest a need for judges who are well educated in juvenile law and the services available, and who can devote the time necessary to become more familiar with individual cases.

"In many counties we don't have that. It is sort of the judge-of-the-day who hears the juvenile cases, and unlike many other types of cases, juvenile cases go on for a long time," he said. "It's not just a trial and it's over with. There are disposition hearing and reviews to see what happens.

"It's a hybrid and unless you study juvenile law and are familiar with the case law and interpreting it, you feel very lost as an attorney and a judge," he said.

SIUC received a grant from the Administrative Office of Illinois Courts to conduct the research and provide a two-day training session on the juvenile court system. That conference, "Working Together: Making It Better," was held in Carbondale in July.

Rudasill said one reason to look at how the juvenile court system functions in rural Southern Illinois is the vast differences in available treatment resources and placement options for juveniles compared to urban areas of the state.

As a part of the research for putting together the two-day, interdisciplinary conference, project coordinator November L. Davison sent 371 surveys to each of the judges, prosecutors, public defenders and Illinois Department of Children and Family Services personnel who handle juvenile and neglect cases within the two judicial circuits. Nearly 50 percent, or 184 surveys were returned; more than half came from DCFS personnel. George Vineyard, of SIUC's Center for Basic Skills, compiled the survey results.

The responses noted a desire for more training regarding the Illinois Juvenile Court Act, additional meetings between attorneys and agency personnel prior to adjudicatory hearings; training for attorneys and judges on DCFS policies; and judges permanently assigned to juvenile court on a circuit basis.

The survey pointed to the need for more communication and knowledge of what each person's job entails, said Rudasill.

"There is seldom a meeting of the agency people and the prosecutor and the public defender, even though the purpose of the Juvenile Court Act is to help the family and help the kids," she said. "It's not really to punish anybody; it's to find out what is going on here and let the parents know that what they have been doing is wrong and then provide them a support system."

Those types of efforts can lead to greater input from all parties and specific proposals to help families, she said.

"There needs to be communication among all the key players in the juvenile court system and it needs to be more of a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach as opposed to an adversarial approach," Davison said.

Rudasill and Davison believe last summer's conference provided cross training that encourages increased communication between court and social service agency personnel. The sessions focused on child welfare issues, including nuances of the Juvenile Court Act; DCFS policies and procedures before juvenile cases are filed; use of sexual abuse and expert witness testimony; the role of Court-Appointed Special Advocates; and the relationship between the judiciary, child welfare agencies and other court functions.

An 18-member advisory council, composed of judges, prosecutors, probation officers and social service providers, helped organize the conference and developed a set of recommendations based on input from those attending. The advisory group recommended the law school institute a juvenile justice legal clinic program to serve as a resource for the First and Second Judicial Circuits, and serve as training ground for law students interested in juvenile law. Funding for the venture could be problematic - about $150,000 annually - so Rudasill is considering offering a juvenile law course.

Law school Dean Peter C. Alexander said Rudasill and the legal clinic team uncovered a "very great need for the region," but noted that clinical programs are very labor intensive and require more funds, staff and students.

"I wish we had the funding and the staffing to provide additional clinical services to Southern Illinois, but the reality is that we do all that we can do with very limited resources," he said.

He does see the merits of offering a course in juvenile law.

"I think that is an important course for students to take. However, the law school should never dictate the precise requirements of a course. We would always leave that to a professor in the interest of academic freedom to design the course however he or she sees fit," he said.

Providing ground-breaking research and enhancing outreach and continuing education efforts are among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

(CAPTION: Law school initiative – Mary C. Rudasill (right), the clinical director and associate professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s law school, and project coordinator November L. Davison worked on research that could bring about changes in the handling of juvenile court cases.)

Photo by Steve Buhman