Back in the early 1990’s, the juvenile court and juvenile welfare systems were fighting an increasingly losing battle to protect and care for thousands of abused, neglected or troubled children in Cook County and elsewhere in Illinois. The CBF saw this budding crisis as an opportunity and, in partnership with The Chicago Bar Association, launched our first major foray into community leadership and advocacy: the Justice for Youth Campaign.
At the time, about three times as many children were in the juvenile welfare system in Illinois than there are today, and the system was struggling. An Illinois Appellate Court opinion in 1991 put it in stark terms: There is no doubt that the DCFS and our juvenile court system are abysmal failures. Media reports were beginning to highlight specific cases where children were in danger, and the ACLU of Illinois had filed a major class action in federal court on behalf of the many thousands of children in DCFS custody.
Amidst that backdrop, the CBA and CBF launched the Justice for Youth Campaign as a countywide public policy effort focused on the juvenile welfare system. Justice for Youth brought together more than 120 stakeholders that included community groups, the court, and various public agencies. The campaign held public hearings, hosted a symposium, convened a number of committees and working groups to address specific issues, and recruited more than 200 attorney volunteers to get involved.
Justice for Youth raised awareness in the larger legal community of what previously was under the radar for most lawyers and judges not directly involved in the system. By bringing together the various core stakeholders, the campaign helped set the stage for a number of important reforms in the juvenile court system over the next several years that would have lasting impact.
CBA Presidents Laurel Bellows (1991-1992) and Tom Demetrio (1992-1993) and then-CBF President Tom Howell played particularly prominent roles in the Justice for Youth Campaign, working in partnership with scores of other dedicated individuals and entities. The American Bar Association recognized the Justice for Youth Campaign with a Public Service Program Award in 1993.
The Lawyers Lend-a-Hand for Youth program is one of the lasting initiatives with roots in the Justice for Youth Campaign. Lend-a-Hand got its start in 1993 with the leadership of Tom Demetrio, who continues to be an active leader and supporter of the Lend-a-Hand program today.
While many organizations with longer-term focus on the juvenile system have helped to improve that system over the years and it remains a work in progress, the Justice for Youth Campaign made a real difference. And it blazed the path for the CBF to take on the larger community leadership and advocacy role that has become central to who we are as an organization today.