OpEd: The Odd, and Rather Sad, Saga Of Arthur Bishop
Arthur Bishop, the former director of the state Department of Juvenile Justice, resigned just one month after being promoted by Gov. Pat Quinn to head the state Department of Children and Family Services. His departure came amidst revelations that he pled guilty 20 years ago to stealing from mental health clinic clients and the revelation that he’s been sued for child support by a daughter he didn’t know he had until she was 18.
That outcome may seem like a no-brainer, but the sudden ending of Bishop’s career left at least some folks – like me – unsatisfied. I can best sum up that confusing mental state in two comments posted on an article by WBEZ, which drove the story in partnership with the Chicago Sun-Times.
“I don’t know Mr. Bishop but I resent the triumphalism of your reporting this morning,” a reader identifying only as “Ed” wrote.
“Not once did you discuss his performance at the state agencies in which he has served and what may be lost here. What if a true top performer, who could have made a difference, was drummed out of office by distorted reporting of 25-30 year old offenses that he has disclosed right along the way? That doesn’t seem to fair does it?”
A reader identifying only as “Maureen” added:
“Are any of you folks affected by this change in leadership? I want to hear from adolescents in the system, birth parents, foster parents, and the worker bee professionals. This is distressing, but what does it mean for foster kids and others whose lives are ruled by DCFS? I’m a first-time foster parent, but our kids are veterans of the system and quite jaded. Sadly, this is what they expect to hear about the people who make decisions that rule their lives.”
In short, I too was bothered while reading the Bishop stories about questions of relevancy and job performance. After all, Bishop is a veteran of the system, rising steadily from caseworker to top administrator over the course of 20 years. Was he really “questionably qualified” to lead DCFS, as the Sun-Times opined? Was he really a “mysterious choice,” as the Tribune declared after the fact?
Upon learning that Bishop had just come from running the state’s juvenile justice department, I set out to learn more about this questionably qualified, mysterious choice to fill in the contextual gaps noted by Ed and Maureen. Here’s what I found.
The Ed Burke Connection
Arthur Bishop first appeared in the Chicago press in a 1993 Sun-Times article about a mental health panel.
They rounded up the usual suggestions: improve mental health funding, provide role models, stress moral values.
But one panelist proposed a solution not often heard: weed out some of the people in the teaching and counseling professions.
Arthur Bishop of the Bobby Wright Mental Health Center said that, when he interviews job applicants, “Their first question is, `How much money can I make?'”
Bishop said social service providers can’t be trained to care deeply about children or other clients. When faced with those who lack this quality, Bishop said, “Maybe we can tell them to go into another profession.”
That same year Bishop left his job at Bobby Wright.
“I was an administrator for the Bobby E. Wright Comprehensive Community Mental Health Center from 1986 to 1993,” Bishop said in a recent statement to WBEZ and the Sun-Times. “I received several promotions during this time, lastly as director of outpatient substance abuse programs.
“In 1993, following an increasingly strained professional relationship with the CEO, Dr. Lucy Lang-Chappell, resulting in a verbal disagreement regarding programming, I walked out of her office. Soon thereafter, I was informed that she had made allegations that I had stolen funds. This was a totally false accusation …
“However, the court proceedings regarding the charge of theft continued with multiple court appearances and continuances (by the attorney for the agency) for over a year. I made the agonizing decision to plea bargain to a charge of theft under $300 (misdemeanor). My decision was prompted by the following factors: 1) I could no longer afford to maintain a private attorney; 2) could no longer subject my wife and me to the stress of sitting in the court at the Cook County court for an indefinite period (this was taking a toll on my wife emotionally), and 3) lacking any confidence in the assigned public defender to properly represent me. After consulting with the supervisor of the public defenders and my wife, I felt it was in my best interest to accept the plea, end this prolonged fight.”
In 1995, while the theft charge was still pending, Bishop got a job as a DCFS caseworker in the Jim Edgar administration. Who hired him? Wasn’t he vetted? Did he have a patron? We don’t know.
Two years later, he was handed a heater: The custody case of Baby T, featuring a former cocaine addict trying to regain custody of her daughter from her foster parents, Chicago Ald. Ed Burke and his wife, Anne, a former DCFS lawyer who is now on the state supreme court.
“Arthur Bishop, who assumed responsibility for the high-profile case in October, 1997, was asked by Elfreda Austin, attorney for the public guardian’s office, whether he knew that ‘Anne Burke (Ald. Edward Burke’s wife) is the foster parent, that she had been affiliated with the department . . . and that whenever changes (in the case) were made, many people were involved, which is not the usual practice,'” the Tribune reported at the time.
“Bishop said that he was aware of the foster mother’s identity.”
The Sun-Times reported that “A social worker for Baby T testified Wednesday that he did not consider the financial status or political power of Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) and his wife, Anne, when developing a plan to provide services for the boy if he remains in the Burkes’ custody. But Arthur Bishop of the state Department of Children and Family Services admitted that the plan did not include provisions to have the 3-year-old spend more time with his biological family. DCFS is backing the Burkes.”
The New York Times headline: “In Tug-of-War Over a Toddler, a Cry of Politics.”
The Burkes initially lost custody of the baby in 1999, but gained permanent guardianship a year later after a judge ruled the birth mother was not fit.
It is not unreasonable given Chicago’s political culture to wonder if the Burkes ever gave Bishop a hand up. Which isn’t to say they did or that Bishop’s job performance was somehow lacking. Those of us outside the system have no way of knowing.
Up The Ladder
In 2003, Bishop, who had risen to assistant chief of staff to the DCFS director, was promoted to DCFS deputy chief overseeing community services, which put him in charge of adoptions, foster and residential care, and most programs involving children. He supervised 500 employees including a network of caseworkers.
In 2010, Bishop was promoted to director of the state Department of Juvenile Justice – which under a plan by Quinn was to merge with DCFS with Bishop on top. The merger, however, never happened.
Still, Bishop’s appointment prompted some degree of optimism.
“Among Bishop’s projects has been the department’s Fatherhood Initiative, an effort to keep fathers involved in the lives of their children,” the Tribune reported at the time.
“In an area that touches juvenile justice, Bishop has been involved in finding homes for DCFS wards who are ready to be released from Department of Juvenile Justice facilities.”
He held that job for more than three years before Quinn named him head of DCFS. Given his resume, the notion that he was a questionably qualified mysterious choice is balderdash.
“The appointment last week of a new state juvenile justice chief – a veteran of the state’s child welfare system – signals a new era in juvenile justice reform. Arthur Bishop is on record favoring a different treatment model for troubled youth that emphasizes rehabilitation and second chances,” Mark D. Hassakis, then the president of the Illinois State Bar Association, wrote in a letter published by the SouthtownStar.
“For too long, we have largely employed a system that has failed our youth, spending a staggering $100 million annually to lock them up in state correctional facilities or in detention centers while they await trial. It’s not working – for them or for us. Fortunately, we are beginning to see a reversal of this past trend. Research from the MacArthur Foundation, a partner in our effort, shows that half or more of our youth sent to prison for lesser crimes return to our communities after discharge from prison without rehabilitation having occurred.”
That was right up Bishop’s alley – though he did sound pretty bureaucratic about it in this WBEZ interview from 2010.
“We’re starting at ground zero in developing an aftercare program. There is no aftercare, true aftercare program.
Right now, even though kids go to youth prisons, when they get out they’re under adult parole.
Those parole agents just show up to see if kids are breaking any rules, and if they are, they bring the kids back to prison.
But, Bishop says, that’s going to change.
7 people start training this week to become so called aftercare specialists.
They’ll be case managers so that if a kid is violating parole by say, using drugs, instead of just sending him back to prison, these new case workers will try to get the kid some treatment.
Another 14 are scheduled to start in May.
All of those employees will be working in the Chicago area but Bishop says he hopes to hire even more to work across the state.
In 2011, the John Howard Association assessed the performance of the state Department of Juvenile Justice – and thus, Bishop.
“Constrained by limited resources and funding, DJJ is steadily improving operations, programming, education, and reentry services,” the association found.
“Even with the progress that has been made, there are still areas in need of significant improvement or complete transformation, such as use of confinement for non-violent offenses and data tracking in all areas of operation.”
The report went on to say that the department had made the reduction of confinement a priority under Bishop and that Bishop had “welcomed oversight and sought partnership with as many advocates for change, service providers, government departments, and stakeholders as possible.”
That same year, though, an Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission report blasted Bishop’s department about its handling of parole hearings.
A commenter identifying himself as a lawyer in the system came to Bishop’s defense in the comments.
“As an attorney for some of these children, I know for a fact he has inherited this problem. Since he has taken over he has worked and cooperated to bring about reforms in the system. Certainly there are more changes that can be made and will be made and this report should help, but the problem certainly is not Director Bishop.”
In 2012, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the juvenile justice department alleging insufficient class time for kids in confinement.
“Rather than spend money fighting the lawsuit, the Department of Juvenile Justice is agreeing to the federal oversight,” WBEZ reported.
Also on Bishop’s watch: a federal report found that Illinois had one of the nation’s highest rates of reports about sexual victimization among its confined kids.
“Department of Juvenile Justice Director Arthur Bishop called the report’s findings serious and disturbing and said he is taking immediate action,” WBEZ reported.
“That includes creating a 24-hour hotline for youth to call with concerns, and a youth commission that will help advise him.”
Last year started out better for Bishop. In July, a report by the National Juvenile Justice Network said Illinois was a national leader in reducing the number of kids in prison.
Reaching The Top
When Quinn named Bishop the head of the Juvenile Justice department, the appointment was somewhat controversial because Bishop didn’t have a background in corrections. Quinn defended the pick, noting a shift in focus to rehabilitation, which was more in the area of Bishop’s expertise.
When Quinn named Bishop the head of Children and Family Services, he bypassed Denise Gonzales, the acting director who had been chief of staff to the previous director, who resigned due to illness.
Quinn must like Bishop.
After the allegations against Bishop broke last month, Quinn stood by his man.
“The governor appointed Arthur Bishop because of his decades of excellent work and respected leadership at the Departments of Juvenile Justice and Children and Family Services,” Quinn press secretary Brooke Anderson said. “The governor feels he has the right experience to lead this very difficult agency.”
DCFS spokeswoman Karen Hawkins told the Tribune that “This happened 21 years ago and he disputes all of the facts that were represented. For him it became about sparing his family this lengthy criminal proceeding and going on to have this storied 20-year career in child welfare and services. Does that one disputed act define who he is and his ability to lead the department? We say no, absolutely not.”
The problem may have been that Bishop didn’t stand for himself.
Perhaps Bishop has always been media-shy. After the press conference announcing his promotion to juvenile justice director, for example, he declined to answer a reporter’s questions.
But not answering to reporters with his job on the line – during an election year – turned out to be disastrous.
The vacuum also opened up a giant can of media hyperbole.
“We don’t lay the DCFS appointment controversy on Bishop,” the Tribune said in its editorial. “He may have a case to make on what happened many years ago. He may have been nothing but ethical in recent years.”
In other words, he may have a rightful claim to his job!
“But we do lay this on Quinn. Governor, did you really find the best person for such a highly sensitive job? Someone beyond question?”
It seems, within reason, that he did, especially considering the difficulty of attracting a national candidate in an election year who may lose his job in six months.
More bizarrely, the Sun-Times thundered about Bishop’s appointment and then astonishingly admitted, “Let us be clear – we certainly don’t pretend to know where the truth lies … We do not wish Bishop ill will,” the paper said. “We do not even know whom to believe. Family disputes can be ugly.”
I turn now to letters writer Noel Paul Hertz, from Back of the Yards:
“I read your Thursday editorial about Arthur Bishop, who resigned as head of the Department of Children and Family Services, with surprise and disdain. You write, ‘Let us be clear – we certainly don’t pretend to know where the truth lies.’
“But if you really believed that, you would have stopped the editorial right there till you had a better idea what the facts are and some insight into where the truth might lie. That is not what you did. Your editorial implied that you have facts not in evidence and you ‘know’ the truth. You state that you know that Gov. Quinn made a mistake in his appointment, but you offer no evidence that Bishop did anything but an exemplary job at the Department of Juvenile Justice and IDCFS. Do you have facts about this?”
Unfortunately for him, Bishop didn’t press his version of the facts.
“I am aware that we are in the midst of a contested election, and that my documented accomplishments, dedication, and almost 20 years of exemplary work are in this environment, simply irrelevant,” he said in his resignation letter to Quinn.
“While your political rivals may be willing to attack me in an effort to obtain some modicum of political advantage, I cannot agree to be used as a distraction to the real issues that face the State and the children that remain in State custody.”
And thus ended Arthur Bishop’s career working with Illinois families and children.
Are we better off for it? Sadly, we don’t know.