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The Supreme Court Has Spoken


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Chicago Reader readers may be interested to hear that the case of Detra W.--whose life and fight for her daughter the Reader so thoughtfully portrayed in a feature article ["Prisoner of the Past," by Tori Marlan, April 8] appears to be over. Last week, May 19, the Illinois Supreme Court issued a ruling in the court case (known as the "Gwynne P." case, for the name of the daughter) affirming the trial court's finding that Detra W. was unfit to be a parent due to "repeated incarceration."

For the Illinois Supreme Court this case boiled down to one question: Did Detra W.'s repeated incarceration prevent her from discharging her parental responsibilities? The court was interested primarily in two aspects of parental responsibility: bonding/parenting skills and financial security. The opinion discusses in detail evidence showing that Detra W. has not acquired the skills needed to raise a child, particularly one with special needs like Gwynne P., and facts showing Detra W. could not handle the financial burdens that accompany parenting a child with such needs.

The opinion fails, however, to discuss Detra W.'s efforts during and after incarceration to bond with and to parent her child and dismissively notes "were it not for the fact that a halfway house put her on its payroll as a detox specialist, it is difficult to see how she could even support herself financially." One wonders whether the court saw the actual person that Chicago Reader readers were introduced to behind the labels of "convict" and "addict."

The court did accept the argument made by amici in the case (including the Brennan Center for Justice) that a court must consider a person's ability to parent beyond the date on which the state files a petition to terminate parental rights. Nonetheless, in Detra W.'s case the court found that while she "made substantial progress toward correcting her life...she could not overcome the prison terms that prevented her from discharging her parental responsibilities."

With some 2,800 women incarcerated in Illinois and the annual rate of incarceration for women accelerating at approximately twice the rate of men, this is an issue that's not going away.

Kirsten Levingston

Director, criminal justice program

Brennan Center for Justice

NYU School of Law

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