Child abuse and neglect cases in Kane County are on pace to triple numbers from as recent as 2018 -- so high that leading members of the county's court system asked the county board Tuesday to help them build a new courtroom in the juvenile justice center to better address the demand.
Statistics show the growth in child abuse and neglect case filings began surging in 2019. That year saw 110 abuse and neglect cases, up from 70 in 2018. Last year, Kane County courts logged 204 abuse and neglect cases. Numbers through the first quarter of 2021 forecast 212 cases by the end of this year.
Chief Judge Clint Hull said all the counties near Kane are seeing similar and troubling trends in abuse and neglect cases.
Hull, along with other chief judges, are hoping to get answers about why the numbers are so high from the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services at an upcoming meeting. But both Hull and Gloria Kelley, who leads a nonprofit organization that advocates for juveniles in the court system, pointed to the A.J. Freund case in 2019 as a turning point.
Freund was a 5-year-old boy from Crystal Lake who was killed by his parents and buried in a shallow grave. Two DCFS workers were charged with felony counts of endangering the life of a child and reckless conduct after the murder. "As a result, DCFS did a complete 180 on how they deal with cases," Hull said. "Before they would try to keep the family intact. They would not come to court. They would try to provide services. Now, everything is coming to court."
County board members expressed shock at the increase in abuse and neglect cases. County board Chair Corinne Pierog called for a study and report of the most common underlying causes. "These are children who are in a tragic and very fragile situation," Pierog said. "Our heart bleeds and breaks for each one of them. But what are the root causes? Unemployment? Education? Mental health? Addictions?"
Hull said all those problems are common contributing factors. He said building out a new courtroom in the juvenile justice center and putting all abuse and neglect cases under one roof along with the delinquency cases would make it easier to take both a bigger and closer look at cases.
Juveniles who have been involved in abuse and neglect situations are much more likely to end up in court for delinquent behavior later in life, Hull said. Getting appropriate services to children and families as soon as possible is key to reducing those future problems.
The courtroom would be built out of existing space at the juvenile justice center. The estimated cost is $852,000. The court system has abundant budget savings from both 2020 and, likely, this year as in-person trials have been limited by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Officials also found $979,000 in an unused fund that's been collected from a relatively new judicial facilities fee created by state lawmakers. Those funds can be used only for courthouse construction and improvements.
With the money already available, county board members signaled they liked the expansion plan. The full county board must take an official vote before any money is spent.