McFarland calls for local solutions to DCFS problems as she seeks circuit judge seat
At a time when the state’s child welfare agency faces heavy criticism for its management of abused and neglected children, Associate Judge Amy McFarland is calling for new and creative ways to bring local agencies to the table to help minors who may be in harm’s way.
McFarland spoke with WGLT about her candidacy for a circuit judge seat in the 11th Judicial Circuit to replace Judge Paul Lawrence who retired last year.
Ongoing reports of injuries and death among the state’s most vulnerable have put local leaders in a position to look for solutions in the community, said McFarland, who was appointed associate judge in 2016.
“I’m not necessarily in a position to blame DCFS for the problems that are going on, but certainly there is a problem as a system statewide. We are not serving our children, and we are not serving families appropriately,” said McFarland.
A model similar to the problem-solving courts designed for people living with a mental illness, addiction and veterans could provide much-needed support, said McFarland.
In addition to presiding over the family law division, McFarland serves as presiding judge for recovery court for defendants with a mental illness. With seven defendants currently participating in the program, McFarland is hopeful those numbers will grow as mental health service providers increase staffing levels lowered since the pandemic.
Recovery court has a track record of success, according to McFarland. With an annual recidivism rate of about 22% over the past 10 years, 11 defendants were able to complete the problem during the pandemic. The recidivism rate for defendants outside specialty courts is about 45%.
Path to becoming a judge
McFarland credits her grandfather with her decision to become a lawyer.
“My grandfather told me I’d make a great lawyer. It wasn’t until I had a 10-year-old daughter that I realized he was saying I was sassy and bossy,” McFarland recalled.
When she was 10, she watched as Sandra Day O’Connor joined the U.S. Supreme Court as the first female justice. O’Connor, and later 11th Circuit Chief Judge Beth Robb, now retired, inspired McFarland.
Diversity on the bench
If elected, McFarland will be one of four women in a cast of 10 circuit judges covering McLean, Woodford, Logan, Livingston and Ford counties.
When asked if satisfactory progress has made in the effort to increase numbers of women in the judiciary, McFarland said “I think we’re making progress — satisfactory is when we get to a point of equal representation and maybe more.”
Women often take a non-traditional path in their legal careers, said McFarland.
“But I see that there is a trend of women who are making it work and are being successful and getting into the courtroom more and more. I think women didn’t know they could do it on their own terms.”
End of cash bond
Although it has been three years since her assignment to bond court, McFarland said she has concerns about some of the upcoming changes to the state’s rules for setting bond.
“I’m not sure I agree with the process of no-cash bond at this point because it has not been established through either the legislature or through the courts on how this is truly going to work. My perception is that this may cause a lot of people to be out in the community that likely won’t appear or might not appear” in court, said McFarland.
The goal of setting a cash bond, said McFarland, “is to ensure that somebody has enough skin in the game to appear in court.”
McFarland received high marks from her colleagues in the legal community in a recent Illinois State Bar Association poll. Among the 108 attorneys who responded to the survey on McFarland’s qualifications, 90.7% found she met the requirements of office and gave her a “recommended” rating. Knapp received a 54% rating, below the threshold to receive a "recommended" rating.
“My relationship with the local bar is built on respect,” said McFarland. The surveys are not a popularity contest, she said.
McFarland pointed to a history of treating litigants and lawyers with respect. Her work to run an efficient courtroom, especially during the pandemic when she was asked to help develop statewide rules for remote court hearings, are part of her rapport with the legal community, she said.
Knapp dismissed the survey, saying that trying to gain favor with the state bar association through his role as state's attorney could jeopardize public safety.
The primary election is June 28. The general election is Nov. 8.