The Chicago Judge Who Held Child Welfare Directors In Contempt Dozens of Times

Judge Nancy Salyers, who used civil contempt orders to pressure the child welfare agency’s prompt participation in court proceedings. Photo courtesy of Salyers.

Last week, Chronicle of Social Change reporter Michael Fitzgerald reported on a tragic case out of New York City where a disabled teen was kept in an emergency shelter – with ill-fitting clothes and a broken wheelchair – for more than a year, even though a family friend had stepped up to take care of him.

The judge in the case, Emily Olshansky, was so frustrated with the work of the city’s child welfare agency that she held its commissioner, David Hansell in civil contempt of court.

Youth Services Insider asked around a bit about that move. How common is it for the actual head of a child welfare agency to be directly reprimanded by a judge?

Pretty damn rare is what we heard back. There was a memorable incident in 2010 when, in the aftermath of a class-action lawsuit against Washington, D.C.’s system, a judge held the actual mayor at the time in contempt for failure to live up to an agreed-upon settlement.

But one national expert we chatted with seemed to recall a time decades ago when the courts in Cook County, Illinois (Chicago) used contempt findings against the state child welfare director with some frequency. YSI confirmed that, indeed, this was the case.

Nancy Salyers, who became a presiding judge over Chicago’s dependency courts in the 1990s, said she and other court leaders at the time set up an entire civil contempt structure aimed at making sure caseworkers came to court appearances.

“We had a huge problem with workers not showing up and testifying,” she said. This exacerbated an already tight docket in one of America’s biggest cities.

One part of the problem was a loony court schedule that had all cases begin at 9 a.m., making it difficult for caseworkers and lawyers to make every scheduled date. But often, Salyers said, she would find out the worker’s failure to appear was attributable to the fact that he or she had been transferred to another post, or had quit.

If a worker missed the date, he or she was held in contempt with an order for the worker and supervisor to appear at the next hearing.

“If that didn’t work, we would ratchet it up,” she said, “continuing cases, going up every single level of accountability until we got to the director. And if they didn’t appear, a bench warrant was issued.”

Salyers – who retired from the bench in 2003 and then consulted for courts around the country until 2009 – said the contempt plan was effective in compelling regional managers to appear in court, especially when the caseworker had moved on. “So it was effective at some of lower levels,” she said. “It was a process.”

Judge Nancy Salyers, now retired, with her five grandchildren. Photo courtesy of Salyers.

Not as much in compelling the actual director to respond. Salyers said for years, none of them had responded to the contempt findings against them. When Jess McDonald– regarded by many as one of the great child welfare reformers in history – became director of Illinois DCFS in 1994, he inherited 27 bench warrants issued against his predecessors in the position.

Salyers, sensing an intent on McDonald’s part to improve DCFS, called a meeting and told him he could avoid arrest on the warrants if “he came to the meeting in a cooperative way and help craft solution. And that’s what happened.”

Under McDonald, she said, the plague of continuations due to caseworker absence went away. “So I never had to execute the warrants.”

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at