It was the summer of 1984 when Ben Wolf first laid his briefcase down on a desk in the ACLU’s Chicago office. He came from a large firm to start a new project at the ACLU of Illinois tasked with reforming state institutions.
In 1984, conditions for those under state care in Illinois were horrific – the child welfare system was in disarray, prisons had poor health care and little educational programming, the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center was a violent and chaotic mess, and Illinois warehoused people with disabilities in large, impersonal state institutions and private nursing homes.
These stubborn, systemic problems would not be resolved through a lawsuit on behalf of a single client. Recognizing this, Ben led a long-term strategy aimed at real, enduring reform of the most-entrenched agencies in the State of Illinois.
In case after case, Ben led legal teams that won structural injunctions, often consent decrees (court-enforced agreements), that forced real change in resistant state agencies. The agreements provided leverage to force funding increases, policy changes, accountability and oversight by experts.
Over three decades, Ben has worked on a multitude of institutional reform issues - including reforms that allowed thousands with developmental, physical and psychiatric disabilities to move out of rigid state institutions or nursing homes into community settings, improving health care for the 40,000 inmates in state prisons, eliminating solitary confinement for juveniles in state and county detention, reforming the large state mental health facilities, fixing inequity in educational and program opportunities for women prisoners, confronting discrimination against LGBT foster parents, and challenging basic educational opportunities in the East St. Louis school system.
Ben may be best known as counsel in a federal lawsuit representing all children under the care of DCFS. When he filed the case in 1988, DCFS was a mess. Many of the thousands of children in the child welfare system were neglected; in some instances, the Department literally didn’t know where they were. And, there were no systemic approaches devoted to moving children into safe, permanent homes.
The consent decree that Ben secured in 1991 created a pathway for reform of the DCFS system. Due to the mechanisms and processes created in the consent decree, the number of children in the care of DCFS fell – from nearly 50,000 in the early 1990s to around 15,000 as thousands of children were adopted into loving, permanent homes.
For thirty-five years, Ben Wolf has stood in the breach for thousands of Illinois residents whose names will never appear in the newspaper, who often were powerless and without a voice in our society. As Ben retires as our legal director, Illinois loses a steadfast advocate whose work to reform Illinois’ systems is not just evident today, but will be for generations.