Robert F. Harris, Cook County’s first African-American public guardian, is leaving after 26 years — nearly 14 years as guardian — to become a Cook County Circuit Court Judge. Harris’ last day will be Sept. 20.
“I’ve loved every minute of it. It is something that still holds my attention,” Harris said in an interview.
The Illinois Supreme Court appointed Harris to fill the seat vacated by retiring Judge Edward Washington in the 5th subcircuit. The subcircuit includes South Shore, Grand Crossing, Kenwood, Hyde Park and West Englewood. He will be sworn in on Sept. 21.
Harris was the protégé of Cook County Circuit Court Judge Patrick Murphy, the longtime public guardian who could be a bellicose defender when it came to the rights of abused juveniles.
While Murphy was always in front of the cameras, Harris worked under the radar.
“When Patrick was public guardian, people didn’t really give a great deal of respect to the work and the laws concerning children and the elderly. It was almost like the ’60s. You had to kick the door in. Since I’ve been public guardian I’ve had the advantage of doors being opened somewhat,” Harris said.
Harris calls himself “the guardian of last resort,” although in reality, he really is a guardian angel.
The office provides legal representation for abused and neglected children, minors caught up in the turmoil of divorce, the disabled and the elderly.
His biggest concern has been resources.
“This is something you would not want to see left in shambles because of the budget. You really do need the support of county government and the support of the public,” he said.
When Harris steps in, a family is in full crisis.
Unfortunately, in recent years he has seen a significant uptick in the exploitation of the elderly.
“I’m called in by the Adult Protective Services of the city and the state because there hasn’t been any intervention from either a family member or really good friends,” Harris said.
“When I first became public guardian, mortgage fraud and home improvement fraud was rampant. Since the housing market dropped, I’ve seen less of that. I see more people coming in robbing bank accounts, and plundering the elder person’s 401(k) accounts,” he said.
“We’ve seen elder abuse officers — people that were supposed to be working with seniors in the community — ripping people off and changing their estate plans. And I’ve seen children who have stolen from their mothers and fathers. When we have those kinds of cases it can become quite contentious because families sometimes think that they should be able to do what they want,” Harris said.
Over the past few years, the exploitation and financial recovery unit has recovered $50 million in stolen assets.
He is most proud of the work the unit did to recover $300,000 siphoned from an account of an 86-year-old bank customer by a Chase teller. The Cook County public guardian’s office sued and the money was eventually restored.
“The great piece of this story was the U.S. Attorney’s office was looking at this case and they ended up prosecuting the woman and she was convicted and got some time,” Harris said. “A lot of these cases go unnoticed so people treat old folks like ATMs and grocery stores. The fact that this became such a public case was really important. It gives people a pause.”
The future judge also takes pride in the fact that during his tenure, there were no scandals.
“People may complain, but we are not a scandal office. We have not left some old person sitting on a park bench, or through our inaction, some child has been hurt,” Harris said.