Saving grace

Grace Donovan stares at the piles of case files spread across her office desk.

She leads a busy life as an assistant state’s attorney, and at times the caseload becomes unwieldy. But each file still represents a person, and Donovan, 27, still has the passion to represent them in court.

“I’ve always told myself the second I become jaded, or start to look at the people I’m prosecuting as a name and not an actual human being, that’s when I’m going to leave,” she said.

That day yet has to arrive.

Donovan works for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.  She never thought law school would have been the path she wanted to take in her life. Growing up, she was very involved in volunteer work, and loved it.

Donovan knew she wanted to follow a career path that involved helping people when she began attending Notre Dame University. After taking a class about disabilities her senior year, she realized she wanted to represent those in need, so she thought she should go into disability law.

“[I thought,] I’m going to go to law school and help this people who are being mistreated,” she said.

Donovan ended up finding out that, in disability law, attorneys don’t always get to know their client or see them face-to-face. Part of the reason she chose this field was to be able to work directly with people, and she was disappointed.

So, she decided to go into delinquency law because she felt she would not only get to directly help people, but also get to know her clients personally. Delinquency lawyers, she explained, work with minors accused of committed crimes.

“I get to help these minors be restored to functioning members of society,” she said.

Donovan deals with crime cases every day. She works with minors that have been charged with gun violence, drug abuse, and other crimes that affect thousands of Chicago youths.

When she was transferred into the Cook County Juvenile Detention center about a year ago, most people working there warned her it would be predominantly drug cases that she would see, and only one or two gun cases.

“Since I have been transferred to the delinquency court room it’s turned into attempted murders, murders, almost all gun cases, robberies, and less drugs,” Donovan said.

Donovan believes in something called “restorative justice,” a form of justice that focus on rehabilitating people that have committed crimes and allows them to become functioning members of society.

She beams with excitement to talk about several minors that she has seen rehabilitated from the justice system. She strives to help every minor she works with get back on the right track. One 17-year-old, who came into the delinquency center with minor charges, excelled in the center. He started out not doing well in school, and eventually learned how to read well in the center. Donovan knew this child had great potential, and when he was given a safe environment, he succeeded.

Donovan’s co-workers have high opinions of her. Deme Siakavelis represents children in foster care for the Illinois Department of Children and Family services, and she works with Donovan firsthand.

“She is so caring to every single client she works with, and you can tell she does it because she cares and truly loves her job,” Siakavelis said.

Donovan knows how hard her job is, but she is passionate about it, day in and day out.

“If you don’t like [your job], I think you have to leave,” she said.

Since Donovan began working for the Juvenile Center, the amount of gun violence cases in Cook County has skyrocketed. She has noticed a huge trend particularly in minors charged with gun violence.

Because juveniles often face less severe penalties, many gangs will involve children in violent crimes. Donovan thinks most gang members have smartened up about cheating the system.

Donovan knows that violence is not something that can simply be stopped, but she hopes she will be able to restore these minors back into society with the help of the justice system. As for the future, she doesn’t really know where her career will take her, but she hopes to be able to continue to help people.

While re-stacking the papers on her desk, she comments, “Whatever I do, even if I don’t stay in this department, I know I want to help people.”