Psychiatrists say Blagojevich’s choice to have daughters join him at court may be stressful

By Caryn Rousseau, AP
Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Blagojevich girls join dad in courtroom at trial

CHICAGO — Rod Blagojevich’s teenage daughter Amy fell into her mother’s arms crying during closing arguments of her father’s corruption trial on Tuesday, the day after her 7-year-old sister Annie clutched their mother’s hand as the family walked past a line of photographers to enter the court.

The Blagojeviches’ decision to bring their daughters to the ousted Illinois governor’s trial — both girls on Monday and just 14-year-old Amy on Tuesday — has ignited debate about whether it was intended to help comfort the parents or sway the jury. For the girls themselves, child law and psychology experts say, the experience might lead to stress and trauma.

“The children may hear things in this case about their father that are not going to be healthy,” said Dr. Louis Kraus, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center. “These aren’t healthy comments for a child to hear.”

Amy was visibly upset as Blagojevich’s defense attorney finished the first half of his closing argument on Tuesday. Patti Blagojevich held the girl as her father came over and rubbed his daughter’s shoulder. On Monday, Patti Blagojevich sat in court with Annie on her lap, sometimes handing her pieces of candy.

Pictures of the girls were on the front pages of both Chicago daily newspapers Tuesday. Their father has pleaded not guilty to charges including that he tried to trade or sell an appointment to President Barack Obama’s former Senate seat. If convicted, he could face fines and a long prison sentence.

A note was posted on Patti Blagojevich’s Twitter account Monday about her daughters’ court attendance.

“Thank you to all of you who were so kind to my daughters in court today,” the post read. “It meant a lot for them to see all of their daddy’s supporters.”

Court can be imposing for children, said Bruce Boyer, director of the Civitas ChildLaw Clinic at Loyola University Law School in Chicago.

“All of the wood and the flags and the high ceilings and the space,” Boyer said. “The environment is something that would make you think there are very serious things that are going to happen here. I would worry, ‘What is going to happen to my dad? Will I lose my dad?’”

With seven years between them, the Blagojevich girls will be affected in different ways, child psychiatrists say. Seven-year-olds, like Annie, are beginning to develop a sense of right and wrong but lack abstract reasoning.

“They’re not going to be able to listen to what’s going on and make the level of sense out of it that an adult may make,” Kraus said.

Meanwhile, teenagers like Amy don’t want to be seen as different from the crowd.

“It’s going to potentially single her out in her peer group,” Kraus said. She is “being brought into a situation that quite frankly most adults have trouble with.”

Kraus said bringing the children into the courtroom is likely about the jury.

“The juror is going to observe that this is not just a governor, but a father of two children who are sitting in the courtroom,” Kraus said. “The purpose, in my opinion, is not for the children’s benefit but for his potential benefit and how it would impact the jury’s view of who he is as a person.”

Dr. Sharon Hirsch, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Chicago Hospital, puts it more simply: “The question is really, is he exploiting his kids? I don’t know.”

Hirsch said what happens next is important.

“Whatever the Blagojeviches can do to normalize their children’s life as soon as this is over with, as soon as they get back to the regular routine,” she said. “It will help preserve their mental health.”

Associated Press Writer Michael Tarm contributed to this report.

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