Patrice Munzel Ball-Reed will never forget April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. She was living with her family on the west side of Chicago, the center of the violent protests that erupted after King’s assassination. The frightened 10-year-old watched as rioters burned buildings and looted stores on her block, and national guardsmen with guns patrolled the neighborhood in tanks. “It was scary,” she says. “I remember thinking that the rioters were breaking the law.”
The importance of the rule of law stayed with her. After graduating from Trinity College in Connecticut, she entered John Marshall Law School in Chicago. She practiced general law for five years and then moved to the public sector, joining the staff of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. And that is where a once shy young woman found her voice.
It’s hard to believe that the gregarious Ball-Reed was ever the “introverted bookworm” she claims to have been, but, as she says: “When I first started practicing law, I wasn’t a rainmaker. I was hesitant to express my opinions and uncomfortable networking.” Working in the Child Support Division changed that. She had direct contact with mothers seeking help in locating absent fathers, and she worked hard to secure the child support to which they were entitled. Today, as deputy attorney general of Child Support Services in the Office of the Illinois Attorney General, she has the opportunity to effect policy and make administrative changes in the way child enforcement services are carried out.
In 1989, when Ball-Reed started working in the Child Support Division at the State’s Attorney’s Office, it acted more as a collection agency. Today, technological changes have made it easier to track down nonpaying parents, and, says Ball-Reed, her perspective of the work has shifted from a punitive to a more compassionate approach to working with broken families. “We no longer focus only on what they can pay,” she says. “Now we look at their circumstances. Are they underemployed? Do they need help in reducing arrearages? Oftentimes, noncustodial parents don’t pay because they resent not being allowed to see their children. In those cases, we refer them to mediation to work out visitation rights. Our goal is to ensure that children receive continuous support and have a stable family life.”
Family stability is central to Ball-Reed’s life. She and her husband, Roy Reed, a project manager for the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, have been together for 30 years. Ball-Reed’s mother lives with them, along with their two younger children, Alexis, 12, and William, 10 (who her retired father baby-sits). Their oldest child, Candace, 23, is married and now the mother of 20-month-old Darion. Ball-Reed knows how lucky she is as a working woman to have a strong family support system. “I have a wonderful husband and mother helping me out,” says Ball-Reed. “And because of them, I have time to help out others.”
For the past 20 years, Ball-Reed has spent much of her spare time working with nonprofit organizations that support families down on their luck. She currently sits on the boards of four organizations serving Chicago’s homeless men, women and foster children. And the formerly timid lawyer has metamorphosed into a vocal spokesperson for African-American women lawyers. She was a founding member and past president of the Black Women Lawyers Association of Greater Chicago. Ball-Reed explains: “In the ’50s, the Chicago Bar Association didn’t admit blacks, so black lawyers started their own group, the Cook County Bar Association. I’m still a member, but I and some other black women lawyers recognized that we needed our own organization to let people know that we are an important part of the legal community and that we want our voices heard.”
Ball-Reed does save time for her family. Every few months the whole family goes to their vacation home in Michigan and, a practice many busy two-career families might follow, she and her husband have a standing weekly date of dinner and a movie.
“This,” she says, “is the best of all possible worlds.”