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Playwright Rebecca Gilman examines the child custody system

Playwright RebeccGilman (left) Mary Beth Fisher (Caroline) rehearsal for “LunGale” Goodman Theatre

Playwright Rebecca Gilman (left) and Mary Beth Fisher (Caroline) in rehearsal for “Luna Gale” at Goodman Theatre

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Updated: January 22, 2014 12:33PM

Who can best raise a child? And who decides? Our state’s child custody system is meant to protect children from abusive environments, but no system is perfect. State statistics show that more children died of abuse and neglect in Illinois in the past fiscal year, which ended in June, than in the past three decades. With budgets slashed and the number of cases increasing, caseworkers — many just a few years out of college — are expected to take on more work, with less time devoted to each case. And many of the decisions that affect our children are driven purely by financial considerations. We saw with the government shutdown that our country’s most vulnerable populations are the first ones affected when support programs are underfunded. This is one of the issues I wanted to explore in my new play, “Luna Gale,” premiering Jan. 27 at the Goodman Theatre.

Many of my plays are inspired by current events and unresolved issues in our country, such as institutionalized racism in “Spinning Into Butter” and violence against women in “Boy Gets Girl.” I was particularly moved to write about child custody after viewing a “Frontline” documentary called “Failure to Protect,” which covered real-life custody cases in Maine. The documentary exposes the difficulties of providing for families under the custody system; it’s often more efficient to place a child in another home than to provide long-term services to a parent who needs help. In these instances, a caseworker has to make a judgment between protecting a child and destroying a family.

I wanted to write a play that didn’t show a clear answer for what’s right and what’s wrong, and to write a character in the midst of it all, one who has to choose a side. That character is Caroline, played by Mary Beth Fisher, who I’m delighted to work with for the third time at the Goodman. Caroline is a veteran social worker who meets two drug-addicted teenage parents accused of neglecting their infant daughter. She places the baby in the care of the grandmother, who at first seems like the perfect candidate for foster care. But Caroline finds that once her difficult decision has been made, it’s even more difficult to reverse it, and she’s forced to admit that she may not have made the right choice at the start.

My hope is for audiences to consider what they would do in this situation, and to see that they can’t judge the whole of a person by one particular action or failure. It’s what our custody workers have to face when dealing with real families every day, at an increasingly overwhelming volume. I believe the success of a society is best judged by how well it protects the rights of its most vulnerable citizens. No one is more vulnerable than a child adrift. We can’t fix the child welfare system without government intervention and proper funding. But with more people aware of its complexities and shortcomings, we can hopefully find the communal will to improve it.

“Luna Gale” runs Jan. 18-Feb. 23 at the Goodman Theatre. For tickets, visit

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