By Dustin Seibert
The Cook County public defender's and state's attorney's offices would be nonexistent without people who made bad life decisions.
Society is designed to condemn and convict those poor decision-makers who are perceived as threats to the well-being of humanity. The Cook County Juvenile Court serves as one of the biggest reminders that an individual's pattern of decision-making can be traced back to a more innocent period.
The sprawling building, on Chicago's Southwest Side, handles all of Chicago's felony and misdemeanor criminal cases involving minors. The court sees thousands of cases annually and has an entire division dedicated to civil child protective services cases.
Given the nature of dealing with minors, the attorneys for either side must approach their jobs with an increased amount of scrutiny and care that isn't always necessary with adults. While attorneys on each side and within both offices have varying motivations for their work, one would be hard-pressed to find an attorney who doesn't bring a heightened sense of passion to their work with young people.
Two sides to an office
The Juvenile Justice Bureau of the state's attorney's office is two-tiered, consisting of the Delinquency Division and Child Protection Division.
The Delinquency Division essentially operates as a version of the Cook County Criminal Courthouse for minors; the offices try people up to age 17 for misdemeanors and age 16 for felonies.
The Child Protection Division deals with civil cases that determine whether parents are fit to serve as caregivers to their own children. The division — also called "Abuse and Neglect" — is part of the office's Civil Actions Bureau.
Assistant State's Attorney John Castaneda's hypothetical scenario is paramount in understanding the purpose of the Child Protection Division.
"What if we lived in a society in which you gave birth and the child is, as a matter of course, automatically cared for by the state … and it was up to you to prove yourself worthy to get your child back?
"Unfortunately, with the fundamental right to have children in our society, there will always be those outliers. It's a public service that we're trying to do here in court to keep the children safe."
The public defender's office's juvenile section is called the Juvenile Justice Division. The office has a separate Child Protection unit that falls under the office's Civil Division umbrella.
That public defenders working with minors as clients in the Juvenile Justice Division find a degree of difficulty that attorneys don't often find with their adult counterparts. Fortunately, said Assistant Public Defender Sean Kelley, help is never too far away.
"We're never at a loss for co-workers who will second chair for us," he said." It's not unlikely that you will find a kid — or parent of a kid — that's kind of a pain and it's really helpful to have a second person to help out. When you have another set of eyes, it makes things flow more smoothly."
Kelley, a Kansas native who packed up his truck and moved to Chicago in 2003, worked in Child Protection for 2½ years before placing his bid to move to Juvenile Justice.
He said while he enjoyed his time in Child Protection, there's a significant difference in the level of emotional stress between the two that makes Juvenile Justice a winner.
"Child Protection can be really rewarding, but sometimes it takes a lot of Advil PM to get to sleep at night," Kelley said, laughing.
"Cases can easily go on for five years and that can be taxing. In prosecution, the process lasts about a month and it's not as heart-wrenching."
Attorneys for both offices are assigned a specific judge, whom they spend the morning in front of working specific cases before lunch and an afternoon retreat to their offices, where phone calls and Internet research occupies the rest of the day. And then, you do it all again the next day.
Depending on the caseload and assigned judge, attorneys can spend a full eight hours in a courtroom. Assistant State's Attorney A.J. Kim said he's noticed a difference in his schedule thanks to a recent reassignment from a high-volume to low-volume courtroom.
"I get to have lunch now at 12:30," he said as his colleagues gave a knowing laugh. "Lunch is real good."
Motivations of the few
In the state's attorney's office, the two Juvenile Justice divisions are among several assignments that attorneys work on the traditional track as they ascend through the ranks, often with the aim of reaching the "Holy Grail": placement in the criminal courthouse on 26th Street and California Avenue.
The public defender's office assigns attorneys to divisions based on need; conventionally, they spend several months or longer in a given division before moving on to others commensurate with their increasing experience.
A number of attorneys devoted to the work in the Juvenile Court, like Assistant Public Defender Geri Nolfi, have opted to either stay in the offices or leave the criminal courthouse to return to the Juvenile Court, about two miles northeast of 26th and California.
A 27-year veteran of the public defender's office, Nolfi has tenure comparable to supervisors and attorneys working first chair on high-profile cases in the office's Homicide Task Force.
Following her first three years with the office's now-defunct Paternity Division, Nolfi completed a 10-year stretch at the criminal courthouse before applying to work at the Juvenile Justice Division.
The promise of working interesting murder cases involving minors drove her to the Juvenile Justice Division, where she recently completed a decade of work.
"Before I was doing a lot of plea bargaining," she said. "At the end of the day, I've always been interested in doing criminal law and this job appeared."
Nolfi's motivation to ultimately choose the public defender's office was born of an experience she said she experienced after law school: During a road trip, she took a nap safely in her car while parked on the side of the road and was subsequently harassed by a police officer as if she were a criminal.
"I didn't violate any laws," she said. "So it got me thinking about what police do and how they violate the Constitution and people's rights."
Assistant State's Attorney Mary Joly Stein decided to leave the standard career track to join the Family Law Track, where she serves as a training attorney and first chair in the Child Protection Division.
The Buffalo, N.Y., native said it was the number of child protection cases that she worked during her first assignment in the Criminal Appeals Division that motivated her to continue working with minors.
"Every day is a new story, and it's fascinating because we see humanity at its most bare form," Stein said. "We are given these very intimate details of people's lives and we take it very seriously that it's their personal story; not just the kids, but their parents as well."
Stein started her law career in private practice, briefly working insurance defense after graduating from DePaul University College of Law. It was a daily self-assessment of her work that made her switch to the public sector.
"There wasn't very much meaning to each individual case," she said. "It was much nicer to ask myself, 'Am I doing the right thing?' than the daily question, 'How many hours have you billed?' "
Assistant State's Attorney Kathleen Kain's career-to-date somewhat mirrors that of Stein, whom she clerked for in Child Protection during her time at Valparaiso University School of Law.
Kain worked in Child Protection before transitioning to the Felony Review Unit at the criminal courthouse. She returned to Juvenile Delinquency in the position of trial specialist — the equivalent of Stein's supervisory role — just over a year ago.
"I really enjoyed working with kids before an adult level and keep them from being regulars in the adult system," she said.
Assistant State's Attorney Bryan Grissman's early work in the office's Child Support Enforcement Division served as a precursor to his role in Child Protection. While the track will someday take him to 26th and California, he acknowledges that the juvenile bureau is one of the better assignments on the way.
"I learned since I've been here that there are great, deeper experiences than you might find in other divisions," Grissman said.
Grissman, who clerked at the criminal courthouse for the state's attorney during his time in DePaul University College of Law, called his a "sleep well at night" type of career.
"My experiences at 26th and Cali solidified it for me," he said. "Everyone in the office would give up all the money (of private practice) to do this every day."
The parental factor
Any job that involves dealing with children on a regular basis invariably involves dealing with parents as well.
Assistant Public Defender Sean Kelley has the parental archetype broken down into a trifecta:
"The best parent is the one that says, 'you are the lawyer, you went to law school, I trust you … do the best you can.' Unfortunately that represents about 10 percent of parents we encounter," he said, laughing. "The other 80 percent are ones who are like, 'My kid didn't do nothing, you work for the state, you're gonna sell 'em down the river.'
"And then there are those who say, 'Of course Junior did it, he's guilty, I want him out of my home.'"
Kelley said a frustrating part of the job involves the young people who provide widely varying testimonies to him in the company of their parents and when in open court.
"Most kids aren't honest when they are in front of their parents," he said. "The kid tells me one thing, then he gets on the stand, takes the oath and says something completely different. It's like, 'ugh!'"
Stein admitted that she and her co-workers generally experienced a healthy amount of hostility from angry parents, though she understands where it's coming from.
"These people can be very angry and confused about what's going on and they'll look at us as the person that's just ruined or disrupted their lives in a very impactful and meaningful way," she said. "You have to respect that they have that anger, let them have it and hope their attorney can explain to them exactly what's going on."
Grissman agreed that the confrontational parental encounter is simply part of the job.
"While it may just be a Wednesday for us, it's a really important day for the parents and kids," he said. "It's important for us to keep that in mind on a daily basis.
"It could be the difference between a child having their rights terminated or being able to go home in the near future. I think I can speak for all my colleagues that we all take that really seriously."
What can't be forgotten
Stein has worked in the Juvenile Justice Bureau long enough to have experienced more emotionally resonant cases than she can remember. But it's the minor victims who serve as witnesses in trial, she said, that touch her the most.
She recalled the testimony of an 8-year-old girl from one of the first sex abuse cases she ever worked on. The girl described ongoing sexual abuse inflicted upon her to everyone in the judge's chambers. The recollection touched Stein deeply.
"Her feet didn't even touch the ground; they were just swinging there in the chair," she said. "I remember going through that with her and thinking she's the most courageous person in the room at the moment. "
Castaneda described a similar recollection of a 7-year-old girl from suburban Woodstock. He said he can still picture her walking into the chambers to deliver testimony in a purple, hooded coat.
"It really broke me up," he said. "She was incredibly credible because it did happen to her, and it was heartbreaking."
Grissman admitted it touches him to see whole courtrooms of people burst into tears when a child is returned home to their parents. It's the little things, he said, that remind him of why he gets up for work in the morning and why he's always pleasant even when dealing with his courtroom opponents.
"It's important to let them know we're all on their side," he said. "I like to keep a friendly relationship with parents as much as possible. It's important for them to see that everyone is there rooting with them to some degree."
Grissman said popular media has done a lot to convince laypeople that assistant state's attorneys are unfeeling and out to fry young people. But the stereotype and the reality, he said, are two very different things.
"I think prosecutors have a reputation for being stiff suits looking to put people in jail," he said. "But a big part of being a prosecutor is having compassion and that's on display for myself and my co-workers every day in court. You have to be compassionate and look through the eyes of the child every day."
Preventing visits to 26th and California
Kim cited the Juvenile Court Act as his reason why, as a Juvenile Delinquency attorney, the best interests of the minor are his primary consideration. But when that minor is found guilty of a crime, that's when he said his prosecutor hat goes on.
"Once they're found guilty we have to very quickly change gears," he said. "We're talking about the best interests of the minor, but at the same time we can't forget about the public when talking about the crimes that have been committed."
Kim is certainly aware of the stigma that comes along with being a prosecutor of young people; he catches a lot of flak especially from parents.
But child advocacy is a paramount aspect of his and his co-workers' job that is often overlooked, he said.
"Balance is something I try to strike every day, but it can be difficult," he said. "I don't know if a lot of our colleagues appreciate that in other divisions."
Kain, who is working on a case with Kim, put it succinctly.
"We're not just here to throw these kids in jail and be done with them," she said. "We have a duty to also try to help them become law-abiding citizens and that's something we need to take very seriously or else they wind up at 26th Street on the road to becoming career criminals.
"It'd be lovely if we could do our jobs so that there's not much business [at the criminal courthouse]."
Kelley said there are two ways of approaching legal consequences, punitive and restorative, and that the United States tends to be a bit too punitive — an offshoot of Reagan-era politics, he said.
"We've done away with the concept that the reason someone is doing something wrong is because things aren't going well in their life, as if it's a societal aberration for people to behave a certain way," he said. "Other societies seek to figure out what's missing and look to provide things so it doesn't happen again.
"In this country we've gotten used to crime and gotten used to our neighborhoods being messed up, so we just lock people up and throw away the key."
Kelley said the work of the Juvenile Court is imperative in giving the courtrooms of 26th and California less to do.
"Fortunately, we societally still think kids can be fixed, so we try to provide them the services they need to become successful people," he said.
"We don't try to punish them too much … just enough so that they say to themselves, 'I shouldn't do this again.'"
Kelley recalled his former assignment in the courtroom of a "hanging judge" — one that frequently sentenced minors to jail time — as an example that many people are out of touch with what young people in the city have to encounter on a daily basis.
"She didn't recognize that just these kids getting dressed up and not getting shot on the way to court was a challenge," he said. "I respect them and think it's really terrific that they can survive under such difficult circumstances."
Nolfi, who frequently works cases with Kelley, said talking with their clients in a way that doesn't chastise or belittle them is essential to discovering the motivations behind their alleged crimes.
"We know our kids in a whole different way than legislators and judges," Nolfi said.
"We just strive to understand why things are going on, why these kids are getting arrested."
Nolfi said Kelley's very good at speaking with young people in a fashion that gets them to respond to him.
"It's unfortunate sometimes to talk to them about 'college is a great thing' when they have much bigger problems to worry about," Kelley said. "If you talk to them like a lawyer, then they shut off."
Talking with loved ones
Castaneda has spent decades in his profession, including working as a paralegal in California in the 1980s and a nine-year stint in the 1990s with his own private practice. His wife of 18 years, Emily Stein, is a trained ballet dancer and choreographer.
His long-standing policy is not to bring work home. While they don't discuss specifics of his work, he and Stein aren't above discussing general concepts related to law, thanks to several common traits.
"She's so analytical … it comes through in her choreography," he said. "She appreciates the logic behind the legal concepts so we talk about that. It's not foreign or uninteresting to her."
Kim isn't quite as lucky in avoiding ideological debates with his significant other. He met his wife Amanda Ingram during his time at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. She now works on the opposite side of the criminal justice system as an assistant appellate defender for the state of Illinois.
"It makes for really interesting dinner conversation, but over the years we've learned to keep it PG," he said, laughing. "For the sake of our relationship, we keep it at polite conversation."