Chicago. Municipal Court. Court of Domestic Relati.

Report of the work of the Court of Domestic Relations, 1913-1914 online

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Court of Domestic Relations


Hon. Joseph Z. Uhlir, Judge


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HE Court of Domestic Relations, the first one of
its kind, was established on April 3, 1911, as a
branch of the Municipal Court of Chicago. It
was given jurisdiction over violations of laws
involving chiefly wrongs to women and children,
as the name of the court indicates. Three judges
have so far presided over this unique court — Judge Goodnow
during the first year of its existence. Judge Gemmill during
the second year, and during the third year, from April 3, 1913,
to May 4, 1914, I had the honor to hold this court. Each year
has witnessed a great growth in the amount of business trans-
acted. During the first year 2796 cases were heard and dis-
posed of; in the second year the number grew to 3699 cases,
while the third year saw the disposition of 4413 cases. This
surprising growth in the number of cases handled does not
mean that Chicago is daily getting more lawless, or that the
family life and the morals of the people are growing worse.
The increased business is a proof of the efficiency of the court ;
it demonstrates that the establishment of this court was a wise
measure, and that the Court of Domestic Relations, as its work
is becoming better known, reaches the wrongs suffered by
women and children far more completely than was the case
formerly in the police courts. It is merely what one would
expect. A judge assigned to hold the Court of Domestic Re-
lations is selected out of a large number of judges because of
special qualifications for this kind of work, and he becomes
naturally an expert in the handling of cases involving the
family relations of the parties before him; he has the assistance
of trained and experienced officers and special attaches qual-
ified to handle the particular class of cases coming before his
court, and he gets the invaluable co-operation of charitable
and civic organizations, such as has enabled the Court of Do-
mestic Relations not merely to punish, but to help and to heal.


The success of the court is best shown by a few figures.

Abandonment and non-support of Avife and children constitutes

the most important class entrusted to the court. Prior to the

opening of this special court only some twelve or thirteen

thousand dollars was paid annually to the clerk's office for the

. support of deserted families upon orders of various judges of

^ the Municipal Court sitting in police stations. This sum was

,, increased in the first year of the Court of Domestic Relations

> to $19,618.05. Next year, as the court came to be better known,

^v the amount collected increased to $75,562.59, and in the third

;>. year, during the time I was presiding, $100,294.94 was paid

out by the clerk to women and children upon orders of the

Page one

court. These figures do not by any means tell the whole story.
No statistics can be obtained of money paid directly to women
and children upon orders of the court or in cases, where fam-
ilies have been reunited as a result of the intervention of the
court, but there is na doubt that this amount is fully equal to
the sum paid into the court. This fact alone— the difference
between $13,000 collected formerly and $200,000 collected now
— proves abundantly the usefulness and efficiency of the Court
of Domestic Relations.


The court is a criminal court ; it deals with offenders who
break the law of the state. But the laws which it enforces are
mainly laws for the protection of the weak and for the pre-
servation of those home ties which are the foundation of the
community. And so in dealing with infractions of the law,
the Court of Domestic Relations does not aim principally at
punishing the offender, but at working out such a solution of
the whole problem as to prevent its recurrence, if possible, or
to remove the causes of it. What the judge of this court needs,
is not so much profound erudition in the technicalities of the
law, as a sympathetic knowledge of human nature and an in-
stinctive recognition of the right method of handling the in-
dividual offender. As a distinguished English visitor expressed
it, the judge must be a wise Eastern kaadi. A plain, friendly
talk will convince one man that he has behaved badly, and he
begs forgiveness of his wife and promises the judge to keep
away from liquor or whatever the cause of the trouble may be,
while another man gets more stubborn, if the judge is inclined
to show him leniency. Sometimes a mere taste if imprisonment
will tame a defiant husband. He is sentenced to six months in
the House of Correction, and the bailiff locks him up tem-
porarily in a back-room. It is wonderful what an effect a few
hours' confinement will have. The man begins to figure how
long six months must be, if two hours seems an infinity, and
when later in the day he is again brought before the judge, he
is a broken man and sincerely anxious to deserve the clemency
of the court. It goes without saying that the judge makes ex-
tensive use of the provisions of the probation act. Sending the
husband to jail or workhouse leaves the family generally in
destitute circumstances. So the sentence is suspended, and the
offender placed on his good behavior under the supervision of
an adult probation officer. Unless there is reason to fear that
he would run away, his individual recognizance without sure-
ties is accepted. Those that show no repentance or whose con-

Page two

duct has been atrocious or who have broken a promise to make
good are sentenced to the House of Correction for a term of
sis months or a year. But in a few days the wife that had the
husband arrested and who testified against him and exhibited
black and blue spots where he had struck her, comes back to
plead for him. He may be a brute, but he is the father of her
children, and she is sure that he will do better, and begs the
judge piteousiy to give him another chance. The judge readily
gives in to her plea and orders the man released from Bride-
well on probation. In a great majority of cases one lesson is
sufficient. The man is told that if he lays a hand on his wife
or neglects his family, he will be brought back and made to
serve the whole of his term. He is placed under the supervision
of an adult probation officer. The officer helps him to find em-
ployment, if the probationer is out of work ; he settles disputes
between husband and wife, sees to it that the order of the
court for the support of the family is obeyed, and in general
acts the part of a good Samaritan. The people of Chicago do
not realize how important and how thorough-going is the work
carried on by Judge Houston and his force of adult probation


The Court of Domestic Relations is primarily a court of
poor people and of immigrants. The rich settle their domestic
difficulties elsewhere, either by suit for divorce, or by a sep-
aration mutually agreed upon, or by retirement to a sanitarium.
The parties before the Court of Domestic Relations seldom can
afford to employ lawyers, and it is up to the judge to question
witnesses and bring out the true state of facts. And further,
while this court is technically only a branch of the Municipal
Court of Chicago and a court of limited jurisdiction, to all
intents and purposes it is a court of last resort. Of the thou-
sands of cases tried by me in the Court of Domestic Relations,
only one case was appealed, a Chinaman sentenced to jail for
contributing to the delinquency of a girl, and in that case the
judgment was affirmed by the Appellate Court.


So many foreigners, unable to speak English, bring their
differences before this court, that a judge who does not un-
derstand the chief European languages is handicapped in get-
ting the true facts of each case. The parties may bring a
friend who knows some English, or the court clerk or bailiff
is called on to do his best. But in the absence of an expert

Page three

interpreter the witness does not grasp fully the lawyer's or
the judge's question, and the judge does not get the whole
effect of the witness's testimony. The court should have an
expert interpreter on its staff, so that this unintentional, and
sometimes intentional suppression of testimony might be pre-


As this is the poor man's and particularly the poor wom-
an's court, an effort has been made to impress upon them the
fact that it is a friendly court. Both complainants and defend-
ants are treated with consideration and patience by the judge
and the officers of the court. In the second year of the court's
existence a court room adjoining the room where the court
proper is held was fitted up as a rest-room for women waiting
to have their cases called. Comfortable chairs and rockers
have been installed, as well as cots for babies of whom so many
are brought into court every day. There is now a play-room
for children with kindergarten material, and the nurse — of
whose work a more extensive mention is made later — instructs
the mother in the proper care of children. Last Christmas a
beautifully trimmed Christmas tree was set up in the waiting
room, with toys, fruit and candy for every child Avhose parents
had their difficulties adjusted by the court during the holiday
season, and baskets of Christmas cheer were sent to families
of men who had been sentenced to the House of Correction by
this court. It was surely the first time that a Christmas tree
was set up in connection with a court of justice. The money
needed was contributed by the court and individuals and or-
ganizations co-operating with the court, and to them also is
due the existence of a special fund which the judge uses for
immediate relief in cases where the facts show it to be neces-
sary, further relief being given later by some one of the char-
itable organizations represented in the court.


This court is a busy court. It does not adjourn, except for
a few minutes at lunch time, until it has disposed of all the
cases on the call for that day. The call is always heavy, but
the parties are entitled to a patient and full hearing, and so it
frequently happens that this court is sitting long after the
regular adjournment hour of the Municipal Court. It is no
unusual thing to have the officers, as well as the judge of the
Court of Domestic Relations work twelve or even fourteen
hours in one day. The amount of business, very "heavy now
and increasing steadily, points to the need of a branch court
of Domestic Relations.

Page four


In addition to clerks and bailiffs, the assistant state's at-
torney and city prosecuting attorney, the Court of Domestic
Relations has a number of special workers on its staff. From
the very beginning an experienced social worker, a woman,
was employed to interview complainants, sift the facts and re-
lieve the judge of much unnecessary detail work. During my
term a second secretary had to be added to the court's working
force. These ladies have an office adjoining the restroom, and
complainants and applicants for warrants are directed to apply
to them. j\Iany times there is no ground for a warrant, but
rather need for relief or legal advice, or some other thing
which another agency is fitted to give. The secretary refers
such persons to the proper agenc3^ Many persons are willing
and even anxious to avoid court action, so that a letter re-
questing husband and wife to come in and talk over their dif-
ficulties results in a satisfactorj^ agreement, without either a
warrant or trial. Sometimes a letter of warning will accom-
plish the desired result. From 75 to 100 conferences are held
each month with quarrelling couples, and the secretary's me-
diation results in a large percentage of reconciliations. An im-
portant part of the work of the secretaries is to enforce the
payment of the weekly sum awarded by the court to the aban-
doned wife and children. A letter of warning is first sent to
the defaulting husband, and if that does not bring results, he
is brought before the judge to answer the charge of contempt
of court for disobeying the order to pay the stated sum for the
support of the family. The two secretaries heard last year
10,765 complaints of all sorts.


During the second year of the court 's existence an attempt
was made to determine in some measure the causes which lead
to so many family troubles. The judge after hearing the testi-
mony in the case, noted his conclusion of what appeared to him
to be the cause of family separation. Drunkenness, immorality,
ill temper and abuse, interference of relatives, laziness and
venereal diseases were given as chief causes. But it soon be-
came apparent that this analysis did not go deep enough, and
that frequently the underlying cause of the trouble vras a phy-
sical or mental defect. Again, many women applying for war-
rants appeared to be more in need of medical attention than
of justice at the hands of the court, and children, sick and
starving, Avere daily brought into the court by mothers who
came to complain of their husbands. As a result of these con-
ditions the Visiting Nurses Association, at my request, detailed

Page five

in September 1913 a nurse to give her whole time to needs
arising in connection with the Court of Domestic Relations.
The importance of the work of the nurse was so manifest that
a short time later by a vote of the judges of the Municipal
Court the nurse was made a regular attache of the court as a
deputy bailiff — the first woman to be appointed a court bailiff.
Another important addition to the staff of the court was the
assignment of Dr. Anna Dwyer to be the physician of the Court
of Domestic Relations. Medical examinations made by Dr.
Dwyer at the court's request revealed a startling and distres-
sing state of affairs. She found tuberculosis, epilepsy, syphilis,
borderland insanity, idiocy at the source of many domestic
troubles. Separation and non-support which the complaining
wife attributed to drunkenness was shown to have its origin
in disease. Facts brought out by the doctor made more urgent
the need of a well-equipped psychopathic laboratory, where
the complete physical and mental condition of a person could
be determined, a project earnestly advocated by Chief Justice
Olson, and the latter part of April of this year saw the estab-
lishment of this laboratory by the Municipal Court of Chicago.
Even in the short time which elapsed between the opening of
the laboratory and the close of my service in the Domestic Re-
lations Court, a number of cases occurred where parents, phy-
sically mature, were by the medical expert shown to possess
the mentality of a ten or twelve year old child. The judge
should be put in possession of facts like these, if he is to decide
cases pending before him in accordance with the law of the
state and the principles of natural justice.


The working force of the court has been further increased
by the addition of an investigator in bastardy cases and of a
Juvenile Court Probation officer. The investigator is an em-
ployee of the state's attorney's office; she interviews the com-
plaining girls, finds shelter for them, when necessary, and as-
sists in the preparation of these delicate cases. The Juvenile
probation officer looks after the interests of the children in
cases where facts brought out on hearing before this court show
the necessity of action by the Juvenile Court on behalf of the


The great results accomplished by the Court of Domestic
Relations are due to a large extent first, to the loyal and effi-
cient manner in which the various officers and attaches of the

Pagt six

court have performed their duties, and secondly to the cordial
and single-hearted co-operation of the numerous organizations
having for their aim the betterment of the city and help for
suffering humanity. Departments of the county and city gov-
ernment, such as the Juvenile Court, the probation officers, the
county agent's force — charitable organizations, in particular
the United Charities, Catholic "Women's League, Polish, Ger-
man, Jewish, Bohemian and Italian Aid Societies, the Juvenile
Protective Association, representatives of social settlements,
Legal Aid Society, Houses of Refuge for women and children,
and a large number of other charitable, civic and church or-
ganizations, have multiplied the power of the court for good
many times. They give relief in cases of distress and want,
find v/ork for the unemployed, secure medical aid, reunite hus-
band and wife and extend sympathy and aid. It is a credit
to the Cit}^ of Chicago that so many public spirited and char-
itable women and men are ready to assist the court in its great
task. The thanks of all good citizens are due to the tireless
and enthusiastic charitable workers, co-operating with the
Court of Domestic Relations.


The court is attracting much attention and receiving much
commendation not merely throughout the United States, but
in foreign countries as well. Distinguished visitors to Chicago
ask to see this court as one of Chicago's wonderful civic in-
stitutions. Commissions, sent by foreign governments, from
countries as far distant as Germany and Japan, inspect the
Vv'orkiugs of the court and recommend a similar court for their
own countries. Lord Northcliffe, the well-known English pub-
lisher, and his wife could not admire isufficiently the efficient
and practical way in which the court disposes of the family
wrongs of this great city, and called it an institution that
could not be improved upon by any country or any private
individual. It v/ill not be long before everj^ large city will
establish a court patterned after the Court of Domestic Re-
lations of the City of Chicago.


But proud as Chicago may be of this great court, much
remains that could be and should be improved. My experience
as presiding judge made me realize that a number of changes

Page seven

and reforms are needed, if the court is to dispense the "newer
justice," and to prevent, as well as to punish crime. And it
is the chief aim of this report to call to the attention of our
public officials and legislators and of the citizens in general
what the needed changes are.


The law covering abandonment of wife needs amendment.
A husband deserts his wife and leaves her in utter want. Some
time later he is apprehended and brought before the judge of
the Court of Domestic Relations. The judge orders him to
pay the wife a certain amount a week for her support. Here
is where the present law fails. When the delinquent husband
has paid the sum ordered for one year, he has done all that
this court can require of him. For his continued neglect of
the husband's duties he is no longer amenable to the criminal
law. The court's power is exhausted. Abandonment and non-
support should be made a continuing offense, so that a de-
serter could be arrested at any time and made to support his
wife, while she is in want, or suffer punishment. The law
should further be changed so as to make the gist of the offense
non-support instead of abandonment coupled Avith non-support.
A woman comes complaining that her husband will not work,
but stays at home and loafs and drinks on the wife's earnings.
The law is powerless to help this woman. As long as the hus-
band lives with his wife, the fact that he is a worthless fellow
and refuses to work does not make him amenable to the crim-
inal law. The law should be changed so as to subject to pun-
ishiiient any husband who willfully refuses to support a wife
who is actually dependent upon him for support. Such a
change in the law would also cover another class of cases.
Often the deserted wife is at first able to support herself and
takes no steps to have her husband apprehended. But in a few
years her savings disappear or sickness comes, and then she
would like to compel her husband to keep her out of the poor
house. She comes to the judge's secretary to ask for a war-
rant and is told that it is too late. She did not make her com-
plaint within eighteen months of the day her husband lef her,
and now the statute of limitations has intervened. If the law
made the willful non-support of wife a crime, she could get
her redress.


The law making abandonment and non-support of child
a crime does not now bear equally on father and mother. If
a mother runs away and abandons her small children, she is

Page eight

not guilty of any offense, as long as the father is able to sup-
port the children and they do not become dependent. The
law, as it is now, is not fair; father's desertion is a crime,
mother's desertion usually is not. Protection of the children
should be the aim of our law. The duty of mother to care
for and nurture her children should be enforced just as strictly
as the father's duty to support them.


In addition to the changes in the law there is also needed
an appropriation from the county funds for the arrest and
return of deserting husbands who have fled to other states.
Running away is such an easy method of avoiding trouble with
wife and the law that cases of this sort are extremely numerous.
The deserting husband may of course be brought back, but it
costs monej', and that is lacking. I took up the matter with
President McCormick of the County Board, and he at first
allowed some money from the emergency fund under his con-
trol to be used for this purpose, and sought to obtain an ap-
propriation of $5000 from the Board, but I am sorry to say
that the commissioners sav/ fit to make an appropriation of
$1000 only. ]\Iuch has been accomplished with the small sum
available, and if a larger sum could be obtained, so that the
deserter might almost uniformly be brought back, the number
of desertions would decrease very rapidly. The county would
not be a loser hy this appropriation, for now the support of
the deserted families generally falls on the county.

Contributing to the dependency of children is now a con-
tinuing offense, but the court in compelling the defendant to
pay a certain sum for the support of child or children may
make the order for only one year at a time. It should have
the power to enter an order for an indefinite time — until the
further order of the court or until it is shown that the child
is no longer dependent. And the law should also apply to any
son or daughter, without regard to age, if he or she is crippled
or for any other reason dependent on others for support. The
process now available under the pauper's act is too slow and


In this connection I desire to urge another change in our
laws suggested by cases heard in the Court of Domestic Re-
lations. As the law stands, husband cannot testify against
wife or wife against husband in cases where the charge is

Page nine

contributing to the dependency of children. As a rule, if the
man is tried on this charge, wife is the best witness, that is
she is best acquainted with the facts. Or the wife may be the
offender by drinking and neglecting her family, and the strong-
est testimony could be supplied by her husband. But the
testimony is not admissible, and prosecution frequently fails,
because there are no other witnesses. There is no reason, why
this simple change in our law of evidence should not be
promptly made in the interests of justice to children.


A serious defect exists in our law under which the charge
of contributing to the delinquency of children is prosecuted.
As the law has been interpreted by the Appellate Court, de-
fendant cannot be convicted, unless the state shows that before
the alleged act of the defendant the child had already been a
delinquent child. In other words, the man guilty of the down-


Online LibraryChicago. Municipal Court. Court of Domestic RelatiReport of the work of the Court of Domestic Relations, 1913-1914 → online text (page 1 of 2)