Panel faults justice system in toddler’s hanging death



CHICAGO (AP)—A task force that examined events leading to the hanging death of little Joseph Wallace largely exonerated the judges who sent him home to his psychotic mother but said Wednesday the juvenile court system ‘‘surely consigned Joseph to his death.’‘

Amanda Wallace, the mother of 3-year-old Joseph, is charged with his murder on April 19.

The task force report, commissioned by Cook County Chief Judge Harry Comerford and written by three lawyers, said judges, lawyers, caseworkers, doctors and a bureaucratic lack of communication with each other all helped sentence Joseph to live with a very dangerous mother.

Released Wednesday, the report only lightly chastised the juvenile courts while assailing the Cook County public guardian’s office.

‘‘All told, the public guardian’s office was Joseph’s last clear chance, and its neglect went far beyond the public apology offered by its chief,’‘ Patrick Murphy, the report said.

‘‘Given the severity and extensiveness of the mother’s problems, the failure of counsel to advise the judges of her condition … is inexcusable,’‘ it added.

Murphy said the report was an attempt to ‘‘whitewash’‘ Judge Walter Williams’ decision on June 26, 1990, to send Joseph back to his mother, despite vigorous arguments then by his office against the return.

‘‘But that’s what I expect from three lawyers who make millions of dollars representing private clients before judges,’‘ Murphy said.

‘‘To date I’m the only person who has accepted any blame in this case,’‘ Murphy said. ‘‘Everyone else kind of runs for cover and says it’s a systemic problem.’‘

Williams was one of four judges—three in Cook County and one in Kane—who removed Joseph from foster care and returned him to his mother. The task force said Williams’ decision did not affect subsequent judges’ decisions.

‘‘I didn’t look at the report as an attempt to whitewash what the judges have done,’‘ Comerford said at a news conference.

Task-force member Joel Bellows acknowledged the panel ‘‘could have been harsher with the judges,’‘ but felt all of them ‘‘did the best they could’‘ with the information and caseload they had. The same cannot be said for others in the case, he said.

The report said none of the judges was responsible for Joseph’s death. Except for Williams’ decision, it said, ‘‘each of us would probably have ruled exactly as the judges ruled had we been faced with the same record.’‘

The report said other children could face fates similar to Joseph’s unless the juvenile court system, ‘‘a huge unworkable failure,’‘ is fixed. But the task force cautioned against making a bad system larger and said a major overhaul is first needed.

‘‘It would be comforting to believe the facts in this case are so exceptional that such cases are not likely to happen again,’‘ the report said. ‘‘That hope is unfounded.’‘

Comerford said he was reassigning 10 probation officers to serve as investigators for judges hearing abuse and neglect cases. He also plans to seek legislation to provide hearing officers to help judges determine the correct goal in a case—whether, for example, to seek family reunification—and to specify the steps needed to achieve that goal.

Among the task force’s more controversial recommendations is one that the public guardian no longer provide legal counsel to children in Department of Children and Family Services cases. Instead, the panel suggested lay people be provided to represent the children and that the office’s role be limited to ‘‘cameo court appearances,’‘ to training and supervising these people and giving them legal help when needed.

Murphy objected, saying his office should be more, not less, aggressive and that the children need legal counsel.