Chicago’s persistent violence and a father’s fight for change

Chicago Tribune story about our founder, Tom Vanden Berk.

He can’t bear to watch the nightly news.

Day after day, the shootings, the killings. Different lives, different deaths and yet it’s somehow always the same story, of guns and anger, tangled up with poverty.

It’s not that he doesn’t care. He cares. Unlike the multitudes who bemoan the violence and do nothing to help, Tom Vanden Berk has spent his life helping.

“I just can’t stand to see the stories over and over,” he said the other day, sitting in a small room in the North Lawndale headquarters of UCAN, the social services agency he has run for 28 years.

I met Vanden Berk in 1994, a couple of years after his 15-year-old son, Tom, was killed in an alley outside a Rogers Park party. He’d come to pick up his son that night and found police lights blazing in the street.

“Where’s Tommy?” he asked one of his son’s friends.

“He got shot,” the boy answered.

At the time, Vanden Berk was running what he calls “a little orphanage,” the Uhlich Children’s Home, and it struck him that the kind of kids he was trying to help — kids from troubled neighborhoods and families — were the kind who had barged into the party and started shooting.

His son’s death snapped something new into focus, too: These were kids with absurdly easy access to guns.

In the years since, Vanden Berk has been an ardent local voice for gun restrictions — not a ban, but tight registration laws, pressure on owners and dealers. Meanwhile, the little orphanage has grown into a major Chicago social service agency.

UCAN recently sold its rundown North Side facility for $6.5 million and has almost finished construction of a new campus in North Lawndale, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

“Where else are you going to get two city blocks for $1.9 million?” he asked.

The airy campus, with its metal and glass buildings, is conspicuously fresh in a neighborhood of crumbling brick and fraying wood. It offers housing for young people who have been made wards of the state, along with sports, therapy, mentorships and other programs. It employs a lot of people from the neighborhood.

And all of it is built on one premise: Kids raised in violence are traumatized and trauma can be healed.

Vanden Berk learned early about trauma. He was 10 when his father, a part-time janitor for their church, went out one night to repair a boiler. The boiler exploded. Young Tom, the altar boy, served Mass at the church the next morning, not knowing his father was dead.

In the summer of 1966, while enrolled in a Catholic seminary, he came to work in North Lawndale. The neighborhood could be violent then, too, but in those days, before guns were everywhere, violence came in the less lethal form of bats and chains and knives.

Eventually, he left the seminary and married — he’s white, she was African-American — and one of their kids was Tom.

So what’s changed since Tom’s death in the 1990s?

The number of murders per year in Chicago has dropped, though he wonders how much of that is because medical care is better and fewer people die.

“I think it’s getting worse again,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve come to grips with the kids who are exposed to violence, to trauma.”

There are fewer beds now, he said, for impoverished kids who endure violence and abuse.

Effective gun laws have been stymied by the National Rifle Association.

“They’re bullies,” he said, “and politicians are afraid of them. That’s made progress since the 1990s difficult.”

He added: “If we had the death rate in Highland Park we have in other neighborhoods, we would do something about it.”

That may not sound like a cheerful progress report, but on this day, the sun was bright on the new UCAN buildings. Construction workers were finishing the second one, scheduled for a grand opening in July. The place looked good and North Lawndale looked better for it.

“I can’t sit here and say, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve done wonderful things and it’s better,'” Vanden Berk said, but he takes comfort in UCAN’s many success stories.

Has anything gotten better? All I know for sure is that without the work of people like Vanden Berk, things would be a whole lot worse.


As the Lake County State’s Attorney, I am honored and humbled every day to lead the fight against crime, and to strive to ensure equal and just treatment under the law. I have been an attorney for twenty-two years – and each of those years has made me a stronger and smarter advocate for people, for ideas, and for the principles that unite us all.

I am so proud to lead an office of 140 dedicated colleagues who serve the public by prosecuting crime, advocating for victims, and planning crime prevention programs. I am also proud to work with hundreds of Lake County police officers on a daily basis to connect with every community and to develop comprehensive, holistic plans to respond to the mental health and economic crisis that arose from the COVID-19 pandemic.

On one particular day, July 4, 2022, I was saddened, inspired, and motivated by the bravery of so many people. We will always stand with the victims and honor the police and other first responders who ran toward the danger. Just as so many heroes that day thought only of themselves, I also witnessed the prosecutors in my office answer the call to serve survivors and their community – even on one of its darkest days.

Every moment that I have been your legal representative, I have worked tirelessly to oversee prosecutions and to implement policies that make my family and my neighbors safer in the short term and in the long term. That is the job of the State’s Attorney: to prosecute, to innovate, and to strategically plan.

I was raised in a small town. My parents are teachers, and from them, I learned that everyone must be treated equally and that America’s sacred mission is to provide a political, economic, and legal system that allows anyone to prosper regardless of the circumstances of their birth. After graduating from Knox College and the University of Chicago Law School, I spent two years at a first-rate civil law firm in Chicago where I learned that hard work and attention to detail on every case mean the difference between success and failure.

With my wonderful wife Stephanie, I am raising my two sons, Sam and Teddy, in Lake County. Nothing is more important to me than my family’s safety and I bring that passion and determination to protect all families with me to work every day.

I joined the Lake County Public Defender’s Office in 2003 and started my own law firm in 2009. From 2003 until 2020, I watched the Lake County legal system fail to prioritize violent crime, prevent wrongful prosecutions, or address racial disparities.

So, in 2019, I decided to run for State’s Attorney so that I could serve our community by improving a local legal system that cared more about covering up its mistakes and biases than uncovering new and innovative ways to help people.

I won the 2020 election, and became the first Democrat to hold this position in 40 years. Bringing in a new party wasn’t as important as ending 40 years of one mindset that had forgotten the people and that had failed to act urgently to develop new strategic plans to prevent crime while also ensuring that each prosecution is smart, moral, and just.

We have followed through on our promises. We have built the first-ever violent crimes unit, increased prosecutors in our domestic violence division, and vastly upgraded our cyber lab. Now, we have top-notch software and personnel to finally keep up with those who would exploit others.

We have been awarded a large federal grant to bring the first ever Human Trafficking Task Force to Lake County. We have deepened our investment in people by bringing in more victim specialists and raising the salaries of many of our prosecutors.

But the work goes on. We must expand our prevention efforts that are starting with the Gun Violence Prevention Initiative launched in 2022. And we know that the opioid crisis touches thousands of lives throughout this country.

I am proud to serve on the Executive Board of the Lake County Opioid Initiative which has been working tirelessly since its founding in 2012 to reverse a devastating trend of increased overdoses. In 2022, our office was part of a national settlement against opioid manufacturers and distributors.

As an attorney of 22 years, I have committed my life to helping people, and I have conducted over 70 jury trials in Lake County, and handled appeals that have culminated in over 20 oral arguments before the appellate court and Supreme Court of Illinois.

I see my time in this office as the next phase of helping a community that I love and where I have chosen to raise my family. In my first term, we have made Lake County safer and fairer through just prosecutions, constitutional policing, and innovative crime prevention policies.