Since February 1995, Nancy Salyers has served as the presiding judge of the Cook County Court's Child Protection Division. During the past year, according to both critics and supporters alike, the courts and DCFS have developed a good relationship.
Judge Salyers' priority has been to work with DCFS to bring about solutions to past problems. There were huge placement delays for the children, and everyone was pointing the finger at someone else. Initially, Judge Salyers believed the abusive treatment of children by their parents was going to be her biggest source of frustration. Instead, she recalled, "what the system was doing to the kids actually upset me more."
The high worker turnover was an added problem. It was agreed that the key date system would be eliminated, because after implementation it was determined that it only compounded the problem. By the time a judge would call a case, a new worker had been assigned who belonged in front of a different judge. "Cases were literally 'hopscotching' all over the courthouse," Judge Salyers added.
"The turnaround has come because there's greater communication between the department and the courts," Judge Salyers commented. "There isn't a week that goes by that I'm not in touch with either DCFS General Counsel Cheryl Cesario or someone else from the department to resolve a problem or to anticipate a problem and head it off."
Court facilitators have also contributed to the success. Before there were facilitators, when a case was called and no one knew the worker, there wasn't a way to force someone into court. Now facilitators fill that void by serving as a vital "resource" for the judge and the rest of the courtroom staff.
Judge Salyers also attributes the success to what she fondly calls the Table of 5. "In February l995 I started meeting regularly with DCFS, Office of the Guardian, the Chief of the State's Attorney's Office, and the Chief of the Public Defender's Office," Judge Salyers said. The meetings served as a forum for all the entities to "hash out" problems.
Judge Salyers believes the commitment of leadership and the constant, open communication between the department and the court is also a major factor. She added, "I would characterize it now as a healthy relationship. It's not a standoff. We, Director McDonald, Cesario and myself look at what it is we want to do for the children and how we get there."
According to Judge Salyers, child welfare and child protection have one priority -- ensuring the best interests of all children. In her opinion, McDonald's tenacious leadership has made this a DCFS priority. Judge Salyers' personal philosophy also favors this. "Everyday before I take the bench, I ask myself, whose interest are we trying to serve?" She credits her ability to stay focused and implement positive changes in the system with her resounding answer, "the children!"