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Rebel Without a Pause

In the early 1970s, Bernardine Dohrn and her Weatherman cohorts were blowing up buildings. Today, she has a new—respectable—revolution to lead.

(page 5 of 5)

Dohrn and her two sons prepare dinner at their house in Hyde Park.

The Cook County Juvenile Court—which handles delinquency, abuse, and neglect cases—is in a big, plodding building at 1100 South Hamilton Avenue. “It’s built like a jail,” says Marlene Stern, of the Citizens Committee on the Juvenile Court.

Inside, on a bitter-cold February morning, there seem to be several hundred mostly mothers and grandmothers, with children of all ages. They are overwhelmingly black. Outside one of the abuse and neglect courtrooms are rows of packed benches, like the pews of a church, where mothers and grandmothers hold babies and try to restrain squirming, wandering toddlers. An older child dressed in a frilly dress slides on her belly along the floor. The noise is deafening.

Inside the crowded courtroom, the case proceeding can barely be heard. There is too much hubbub, with the door to the court opening and closing constantly. A young woman stands before the judge with her three children stairstepping in age up from infancy. She is pregnant with a fourth. Her children are all dressed in their best clothes. Her two girls cling to her tightly. She is drug addicted and a paranoid schizophrenic. She was offered drug treatment and counseling the last time she was in court, but could not comply. The judge asks about the father. There are four different fathers—one unknown, one in jail, and two living in other states. Kim King, a lawyer with the public guardian’s office, says, “I’ve been here seven years and I’ve never seen a case that didn’t involve drugs.”

This is the environment in which Bernardine Dohrn is trying to lead her new revolution, as the director of the Northwestern Legal Clinic’s Children and Family Justice Center. The center was founded in 1992 with two missions: on the one hand, to represent individual clients—both parents in abuse and neglect cases and children in delinquency cases—and, on the other, to find and develop a written strategy for reforming the juvenile court system. As the center’s director, Dohrn says, she is overseeing the research and policy aspect of the reform effort. “[Bernardine] is highly effective in organizing disparate groups to support the improvement of juvenile justice in Cook County,” says Tom Geraghty, the director of Northwestern’s legal clinic.

Already, Dohrn’s group has staked out its philosophical ground: They are, essentially, in favor of keeping children with their parents whenever feasible. “I can’t imagine anyone saying that children should stay with parents at all cost,” Dohrn cautions. “The dilemma is that we’ve created a court where the overwhelming number of cases—75 to 80 percent in abuse and neglect—are neglect. . . meaning poverty, meaning homelessness, meaning families in crisis.” These are not cases of obvious, egregious abuse. “My personal view about this is that, in most eases, certainly not all, children are better off with their parents,” Dohrn says. “I think it is the law that if the state intervenes into a family’s life, they have an obligation to try to fix the problem. . . to try to get the family together if at all possible.”

The irony of such profamily sentiment, from someone who once actively opposed authority is not lost on Dohrn’s detractors. But more fundamentally, some of those involved in the juvenile system think her approach is wrong or, at minimum, simplistic. “I guess it’s hard for us when people who don’t represent any kids and sort of come from an intellectual perspective come and say what’s best for [the children],” a lawyer in the public guardian’s office says. “I think maybe if [Dohrn] had worked with the kids a little more or had some experience, maybe she wouldn’t come from such an academic perspective.”

Mike Royko is blunter. “If she’s one of those people who believe that you should keep people together at all costs, which is the single biggest flaw in the juvenile court system—that’s why you keep getting children sent hack to abusive parents who end up murdering them—then I’d say she’s a menace.”

For now, the debate is academic. Dohrn’s center has yet to publish any specific recommendations. And when it does, it has no authority to implement them, or even to ensure that its report will be read by anyone officially connected with the Cook County Juvenile Court. The center has “no arrangement whatsoever” with the court system, Geraghty says. What it does have, he stresses, is “the persuasiveness of [our] ideas and the ability to interact constructively with people in authority.” Such interaction, he adds, is something Dohrn is adept at. But until the group produces its guidelines, which should happen over the course of the next three years, and Dohrn can find a way to persuade the powers that be at the juvenile court to consider them, Northwestern’s Children and Family Justice Center will remain essentially a well-meaning, thoughtful-but powerless-advisory group. In many ways, it seems the quintessence of the very liberal Establishment institutions that Weatherman, and Dohrn, once railed against. She disagrees. “I consider [my work today] a continuity [from the radical days],” she says. “I’m working in things that I always cared about…. Actually, I’m always astonished at how many people who were involved in organizing activities in the sixties are still trying to pursue the same goals in the context of the nineties. So it doesn’t resonate for me, to say I was out [of the Establishment] and now I’m in. I consider that I both work inside and outside.”

* * *

It is mid-March now, and Dohrn is swamped with work and with preparations for an upcoming spring vacation in Maui with her family. But, in a final interview before she leaves for Hawaii, she grows momentarily thoughtful—about her past, and about her regrets. “You know, I think you have to live in your context and in your time,” she says at one point. The sixties are gone. The radical activism of that age, and the anger, even hatred, that underlay it have evaporated. “I wish that I hadn’t been arrogant and self-righteous,” she says of herself then. “I wish nobody had gotten hurt, of course. But that doesn’t change the reality of the context of the times,” she says, adding, “I don’t feel that I caused that turbulence, but that I was swimming in it, as were thousands and millions of other people.” Today, she has a new context, a new goal. And, she says, it is time people stopped asking if her violent past in any way disqualifies her for this role. “The interesting thing about the rewriting of the sixties, you know, [is that] there’s a sense that people want a body. I think the desire for some mutual accounting is legitimate, of course.” But, she says, she has accounted for her actions. “I don’t feel I escaped the system…. I feel like the rule of law had its way.”

In a week or so, when she returns from Hawaii, she’ll again take on the rule of law as it has its way with the children of Cook County. Bernardine Dohrn will be back on the job, at her desk, in her Northwestern office. From there, she will continue leading the charge against a system she finds unfair, and chances are good she’ll be wearing a well-tailored suit.


Photograph: Art Shay


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