Patrick Murphy

Photo by Andrew Campbell



"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
- George Bernard Shaw

There are plenty of people in Chicago who think Patrick Murphy (L64) is an unreasonable man. Murphy is one of them, at least by Shaw's definition. The quote is one of his favorites and sits in a frame on his desk at the Cook County (Illinois) Public Guardian's office."I hope I am that kind of person," he says."I strive for that."

Murphy is stepping down as public guardian in November after more than 25 years of service. During that time he has bedeviled judges, opposing lawyers, caseworkers and bureaucrats with his cage-rattling brand of advocacy on behalf of abused and neglected children and the elderly.

His office has won millions of dollars in judgments against state agencies, helped thousands of kids escape dangerous family situations - and the welfare system itself - and protected countless senior citizens against those who prey on people with mental disabilities. He has successfully argued cases at every level, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

Murphy is running unopposed in the November election and in December will be sworn in as a judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County. At 65, he will be gearing up for new challenges when most people would be winding down.

Murphy was born in Chicago's South Side Englewood neighborhood. His father worked in the stockyards and later drove a streetcar. His mother occasionally worked as a telephone operator but mostly stayed at home to raise their eight children.

Both of his parents had tough upbringings, and each spent time in orphanages."My father was illegitimate." Murphy says."My grandmother had kids by four different men and was married to two of them. And she went to mass and communion most days of her life, and if anyone would have told her she couldn't, she would have told them they were crazy."

His mother, who was half Jewish, was adopted by Hannah and Patrick Kelly, a merchant seaman who came to Chicago from Ireland and became a labor union organizer."He was the person I was closest to all of my life," says Murphy.

Though not the biggest or the strongest kid in the neighborhood, Murphy was a fighter."I learned early that if someone hits you, you hit them back," he recalls."I was in tons of fights."

Murphy majored in history at Loyola University Chicago and applied to law school both there and at Northwestern. William Finnegan, former dean of the college of arts and sciences at Loyola, advised him to go to Northwestern. It was during law school that Murphy's older brother Joe, who became a Catholic priest, got him involved with abused and neglected children and the juvenile justice system.

Northwestern School of Law Professor Victor Rosenblum, who taught Administrative Law, remembers Murphy as"a wonderful student with a keen dedication to public service.

"There was never a question or desire to get out into the world of private practice and make a lot of money," he says."The driving force in his life was making a difference."

Following graduation, Murphy worked in the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, but after two years"I got very bored very quickly," he says."I found it very repetitious sending a lot of young black guys to jail. And I just felt there was something wrong with the picture."

At the suggestion of a friend, he inquired about the Peace Corps and within months was on his way to Somalia, a country he had never heard of. During his volunteer stint there, he served as a legal assistant to the Minister of Justice and then as an adviser to the national police force.

He returned home in 1967 to a country engaged in the civil rights and women's liberation movements, anti-war protests and other cultural changes. He let his hair go long, grew a beard and rode a motorcycle. He worked as a lawyer with the National Legal Aid & Defender Association and the Legal Assistance Foundation.

In 1978 he got a phone call from a friend that changed everything. Then-Illinois Governor James Thompson asked him to temporarily take over the Cook County Public Guardian's Office, which was involved in a financial scandal."The first thing I said was,'Jim, I've never heard of the office.' And he said,'Neither have I!'" Murphy remembers."He said,'Take it over for three months, clean it up, and you'll be out of there.'" That was more than 25 years ago.

The first thing Murphy did was fire his three employees, and then he set out to reform the office. The primary role of the office at that time was to act as guardian for elderly individuals who suffered various forms of dementia. When he first arrived all but one of the office's wards lived in nursing homes. Murphy worked to return to the community those who did not need full-time care.

By using the individuals' assets to provide for in-home care, and sometimes arranging for several elderly people to share a house or apartment, Murphy was able to reach the point where now between 30 and 40 percent of the wards live in their communities. Not only are there cost savings associated with this program, but there are other benefits as well."Some people have to go into nursing homes," Murphy says. But for those who are able to live in their community with assistance,"it's their freedom."

Today, Murphy's office serves as guardian for more than 600 disabled adults and oversees approximately $60 million of their assets. About one quarter of the work done by the Adult Guardianship Division involves cases of financial exploitation of seniors with age-related mental disabilities. In one, an elderly woman went to her tenant for help after her husband died in their apartment. The tenant hired a lawyer and got the woman to sign over her entire estate to the tenant. In another, a contractor convinced a man to take out a mortgage on his home and then had him sign the money - more than $100,000 - over to him.

There was the man who visited an elderly recluse and convinced her to sign over her $800,000 home on Lake Geneva, Wis., to him. The public guardian, often in conjunction with the State's Attorney's Office, works to retrieve the people's assets.

The office is also putting up an aggressive fight against"tax scavengers." In Cook County, if a person fails to pay their property taxes, a scavenger can make the payments and, if the homeowner doesn't reclaim the taxes within two years, the scavenger can take possession of the home. Murphy is pushing legislation in the Illinois General Assembly to prohibit this practice when it involves a person with mental disabilities, and he will also argue a related case before the Supreme Court of Illinois.

"The simple fact is that people shouldn't lose their homes because they don't know enough to pay taxes," Murphy says."These people have money to pay the taxes and tons of equity in the home. It's an unfair system that's geared to reward a certain group of people."

In 1987 the public guardian was given the responsibility of representing abused and neglected children in the Juvenile Justice Division of the Circuit Court. There are currently about 16,000 of these cases being handled by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

As soon as the parents are brought to court for abuse or neglect, Murphy's office steps in to represent the children. If abuse or neglect is determined to have taken place, the children generally become wards of the state."We then advocate in the child's best interest on a variety of issues involving visitation, their return home, termination of parental rights and ultimately adoption," Murphy says."But much of our job is trying to get DCFS to do its job."

Odette Calhoun knows what that's like. When her daughter died and her son-in-law remarried, Calhoun discovered that her three grandchildren were being abused by the stepmother. She called DCFS, and they removed the kids and placed them in her foster care, with Murphy's help.

The department was responsible for providing some assistance to Calhoun, including furniture, clothing, vouchers for schoolbooks and a stipend. But it wasn't always provided."You'd be surprised by DCFS," Calhoun says."You have to fight for everything you need. The only way I got the slightest bit of cooperation when there was a problem was when I said'Well, I'll just tell Patrick Murphy about that!'"

Calhoun's grandchildren are all in college now, and she says"they never gave me one day of trouble. We wouldn't have been anyplace without Patrick. He's a caring person. And his telephone calls could change anything."

Murphy sees serious systemic problems with child welfare. One is the institutional focus on the parents, not the child. In his book Wasted: The Plight of America's Unwanted Children he wrote:"The child welfare system has failed children because it refuses to distinguish between parents who are ill-equipped to raise their children adequately without help and parents who are too immature or thuggish to raise children even with help. To the system, all parents are victims, irrespective of their crimes or potential for reform. And the parent, not the child, is the client."

Another concern is inadequate foster care and multiple placements of children in different foster homes. In May, Murphy sent a letter to a federal judge detailing the experiences of 58 children in foster care who had been moved in the previous months. The litany is illuminating: a 16-year-old who has been in the foster care system for half of her life has been moved 19 times; an 8-year-old boy who has had 12 placements in just two years; a 2-year-old who has been in four different homes.

Foster care is supposed to provide a safe haven for the children until they can, ideally, be returned to their natural parents. But many of these kids suffer abuse, neglect, low self-esteem, poor grades and other issues from living in a system designed to help them. Many of the homes are overcrowded and some of the foster parents caring for young children are in their 70s and 80s."The issues change all the time," Murphy says."Today, the problems are lousy foster homes."

The bottom line, to Murphy, is to bring the families back together, and that is up to the parents."The parents must bear the brunt of the responsibility for reuniting the family," he has written."Any decent parent would walk barefoot over a mountain of glass to get his child back."

Murphy spends a great deal of time in court arguing the cases of abuse and exploitation and directing a staff that today includes 300 people, half of whom are lawyers. He leaves the day-to-day running of the office to others."I like to be in court," he says."You're representing someone who, but for you, has nowhere to turn." And the diversity of cases keeps the work from getting stifling."I can move from a divorce case to a juvenile case to an estate case. It keeps your batteries charged."

Robert Harris, the chief deputy public guardian who has been with the office since 1991, says Murphy has a hands-on style and tries to run the office"like a small shop," even though it has grown well beyond that."He doesn't want it to be a bureaucracy," Harris says."He'll stroll around the office and chat. He wants to keep up with what people are doing. And his thinking goes beyond child welfare."

But sometimes not too far. He has written two books on the subject and a novel that features characters operating in and around juvenile court. He's also an avid reader, works out regularly, enjoys the opera and spent years coaching his two boys' sports teams.

Harris describes Murphy as"an outstanding advocate. If I were in trouble, I'd hire him. He's absolutely dogged." And Harris adds:"Sometimes he's a bull in a china shop. He'll take no prisoners."

It's that attitude that has earned Murphy the enmity of many with whom he has done battle. While most bar associations gave him their highest recommendations when he ran for Circuit Court judge in the March primary, one, the Chicago Council of Lawyers, found him not qualified.

Acknowledging that Murphy is"a very smart and hard-working lawyer who is a forceful and often effective advocate for children," the council went on to say,"We also heard from many other attorneys who expressed serious and substantial reservations as to whether Mr. Murphy has the capacity to put his personal views aside and be a neutral arbiter." They also spoke to Murphy's practice of"leaking information to the press in an effort to gain a tactical advantage."

Thomas Geraghty (L69), director of Northwestern law school's Bluhm Legal Clinic, sees pluses and minuses in Murphy's approach."Patrick Murphy is one of the most dedicated, hard-working and creative public officials I know," Geraghty says."In my experience, very little change comes about, especially in the Cook County juvenile court system, without public pressure. So Patrick's willingness to be outspoken has had a positive benefit of increasing awareness. But focus on publicity has the negative effect of overshadowing the fine work that his lawyers do on behalf of children on a day-to-day basis."

Professor Rosenblum believes that his former pupil will be able to reconcile his work as an advocate with his new role as a judge."I expect Patrick to be a distinguished judge who will recognize the different roles of public guardian and sitting on the bench," he says. Rosenblum thinks the Chicago Tribune got it right when it said in its endorsement of Murphy:"His clients could not have had a better advocate. He has excellent legal ability, no one disputes that. We trust that if he makes it to the bench Murphy will understand that he will no longer need to shout to be heard by the court - he will be the court."

Perhaps nowhere have Murphy's shouts been louder than in his call for answers to what caused six people to die in a fire in the Cook County Administration Building last October. As the workday came to an end on Oct. 17, a fire broke out on the 12th floor of the downtown Chicago office building. Confusion, miscommunication, locked doors in the southeast stairwell, lack of a sprinkler system and other factors under investigation led to the six being trapped and overcome by smoke. Three of the dead were from Murphy's office.

Murphy had been at his other office in the juvenile court building that day but had gone home early with the flu.

"I got on the phone with the office and they said some of our people were missing," Murphy recalls."Then they said they were bringing out bodies, so I got in my car and drove to the University of Illinois Medical Center." There, Murphy identified the bodies of two of his co-workers, Sara Chapman and Maureen McDonald. Attorney John Slater III also was killed in the fire.

Murphy has kept up the drumbeat to find answers to why those six died in a stairwell when the fire department insisted throughout the fire that no one was trapped in the building. He's concerned that Chicago's sometimes-toxic mix of clout and politics may keep that from happening. But it won't stop him.

"If I can't speak out about this, then I should turn in my credentials as public guardian or my credentials as a human being," he says."I knew them. I loved them. And felt that I had to be loyal to them and fight for the answers."

As he leaves his office, he reflects on his accomplishments."Taking this office from where it was and building it" makes him most proud. And then there are the people."There are so many cases that stand out," he says."I've been so privileged to represent so many people. I'm proud of the fact that a lot of the kids I've represented, who are in their 40s now, still like me, stay in touch and send me Father's Day cards."

Fit and trim from regular handball matches, Murphy looks ready for the next fight."I haven't lost my zeal for the job, but I see it coming," he says."It's time to get out, let someone younger do it. It's a lot of fun, and I like it, but it's just time to move on… do something else… get new juices stirred."

Terry Stephan (GJ78) is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Did you enjoy this story? If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail the editors at


Northwestern Home | Calendar: Plan-It Purple | Sites A-Z | Search
Northwestern 1800 Sheridan Road Evanston, IL 60208-1800
Phone: 847-491-5000 Fax: 847-491-3040 E-mail:

Last updated  Tuesday, 27-Jun-2023 15:26:33 CDT
World Wide Web Disclaimer and University Policy Statements  
© 2002 Northwestern University