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Juvenile Court Act protects confidentiality for children — not for police officers who shoot children

The time is now for Illinois officials to stop trying to avoid accountability by hiding behind laws intended to protect vulnerable children. 

A potted plant was left at the approximate location where Chicago police killed 13-year-old Adam Toledo, in an alley way near 24th and Sawyer, Thursday, April 1, 2021.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“I want to know what happened.”

— Elizabeth Toledo, mother of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, as quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times

In what has become front-page news, a Chicago police officer last week fatally shot 13-year-old Adam Toledo. The details of what happened continue to trickle in but remain largely unknown. From what we do know so far, it appears that Adam, a student at Gary Elementary School, had never been in trouble with the law.

Understandably, Adam’s family wants to know what happened.

It turns out there is video footage of Adam’s shooting. Unfortunately, when Adam’s family and the media asked for release of the video, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which investigates all shootings by police officers, initially refused their requests. In support of its decision, COPA cited the confidentiality provisions of the Illinois Juvenile Court Act.

Only after public pressure and dogged reporting from the Chicago Sun-Times and other news outlets did COPA relent and agree to produce the video within 60 days.

COPA’s initial position can only be described as cynical and disingenuous. Nothing in the state’s Juvenile Court Act prevents release of video footage when a police officer shoots and kills a child.

You don’t need to be a legal expert to figure this out. The very name of the law — the Juvenile Court Act — reflects that it applies to cases pending in the Juvenile Courts, not to police shootings of children.

We should be proud that Illinois was the first state in the country to enact, in 1899, its Juvenile Court Act. The legislation created a separate court with special procedures for cases involving children who are abused, neglected or charged with offenses. Chicagoan Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House who is often considered the parent of modern social work, was an author of the act and one of its strongest champions.

Eventually, every state in the country would follow our lead and enact similar statutes creating special courts and procedures for cases involving children.

Our Juvenile Court Act, a remarkable document, was years ahead of its time. It recognized that children are developmentally different from adults. It also recognized that abused and neglected children are victims, not offenders. We take those notions for granted today but they were unusually progressive insights in 1899.

The Juvenile Court Act included strong confidentiality protections. Of course, these provisions were intended to protect vulnerable children. They were never intended to protect police officers who fatally shoot children.

The irony of COPA’s initial refusal to produce the video of the fatal shooting is that there’s no longer any confidentiality to protect for Adam. He’s dead.

For decades, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has tried to hide behind the confidentiality provisions of the Juvenile Court Act whenever its malfeasance results in a child dying or being seriously harmed. DCFS’s response to requests for information is invariably the same: instead of being transparent, DCFS falsely claims that the information is confidential under the Juvenile Court Act and cannot be released.

Just as the confidentiality provisions of the Juvenile Court Act were never intended to protect police officers who shoot children, they likewise were never intended to protect inept DCFS officials. Jane Addams would be rolling in her grave if she had any ideal how bureaucrats in Illinois try to use the Juvenile Court Act’s confidentiality protections to cover up their mistakes and avoid public scrutiny.

Transparency is the best — the only — medicine to improve government. Transparency is a prerequisite for meaningful change. The time is now for Illinois officials to stop trying to avoid accountability by hiding behind confidentiality laws intended to protect vulnerable children.

Charles P. Golbert is the Cook County Public Guardian. His office represents more than 7,000 children in abuse and neglect cases in Juvenile Court.

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