Chicago lifeguards who want to report sexual violence can now call a new hotline

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx
In this Feb. 22, 2019 file photo, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx speaks at a news conference, in Chicago. Foxx is asking any Chicago lifeguard who alleges they've been abused to call a new hotline she has set up. Kiichiro Sato / Associated Press
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx
In this Feb. 22, 2019 file photo, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx speaks at a news conference, in Chicago. Foxx is asking any Chicago lifeguard who alleges they've been abused to call a new hotline she has set up. Kiichiro Sato / Associated Press

Chicago lifeguards who want to report sexual violence can now call a new hotline

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx announced Tuesday that lifeguards who have suffered sexual abuse at Chicago Park District beaches and pools can file their complaints at a new hotline number.

Foxx said victims should call her office at 312-603-1944 to talk to investigators about cases of workplace abuse they want to report.

Foxx’s announcement comes weeks after WBEZ reported that the county’s top prosecutor was investigating the lifeguard abuse scandal at the park district.

“At this time, I am asking if there’s anyone who has been a victim or believe that they have been a victim of sexual abuse or assault or criminal activity at the hands of anyone at the Chicago Park District, you are encouraged to reach out to our office directly,” Foxx said at a news conference on the South Side of Chicago.

Foxx compared the announcement Tuesday to a similar, rare public call she put out in 2019 — when she invited accusers of singer R. Kelly to come forward and contact her office. He was recently convicted of sex trafficking and other sex-related crimes.

“I’ve done a similar plea before for victims of sexual abuse and assault to come forward,” she said. “It was an unusual move at the time, but I’m grateful that it has yielded great results.”

Foxx said victims at the park district should talk to her investigators “no matter how old the allegation.” Former lifeguards have told WBEZ that the abuse goes back to the 1970s and that managers for the park district routinely disregarded complaints.

Foxx also made clear that her office was interested not only in the sex crimes that may have been committed but also was investigating any systemic problems with the handling of the allegations. She said her office has assigned investigators from two separate units — the Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Division and the Public Corruption Unit — to the park district case.

In a letter to park district CEO Michael Kelly and parks board President Avis LaVelle in August, Foxx wrote that her office was looking into allegations of “certain criminal conduct, including but not limited to, past and present sexual assault and harassment, obstruction, witness tampering, concealment of criminal conduct and official misconduct of Park District employees and members of the Board.”

In the letter, Foxx wrote that her office was acting on information that prosecutors had received from the inspector general for Chicago’s city government, Joseph Ferguson. He has declined to comment.

The involvement of law-enforcement authorities came 17 months after the park district’s separate inspector general’s office opened an investigation in response to two whistleblower letters from former lifeguards. The initial complaints were sent to Kelly and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office.

The park district watchdogs said they found evidence of serious misconduct by three senior lifeguards — but were investigating complaints against dozens of employees in the agency’s Aquatics Department, which oversees dozens of lakefront beaches and pools across Chicago.

The deputy inspector general who led the investigation was fired in August — after alleging that top park district officials had interfered in the probe.

And Inspector General Elaine Little resigned last month, hours after WBEZ reported that she quit a previous job at the Cook County juvenile jail while she was under investigation herself.

Park district officials have denied interfering in the investigation, and they say they hired the law firm of a former federal prosecutor to complete the inspector general’s work after Little quit.

On Tuesday, Foxx said her office’s Public Corruption Unit is “looking at issues related to the investigation itself…as a whole,” but she declined to provide any details.

WBEZ first reported on the sexual-misconduct accusations in April. Since then, nearly a dozen former employees have come forward to tell WBEZ about widespread misogyny and sexual misconduct spanning the past five decades at public beaches and pools.

One former lifeguard who said she was sexually abused by a supervisor at a North Side beach many years ago now expressed her hope that Foxx’s office will manage to deal with the scandal “delicately and competently.”

The woman said she lost faith in the park district’s ability to handle the situation after the firing of Deputy Inspector Nathan Kipp and Little’s subsequent, sudden resignation. WBEZ generally grants anonymity to people who allege sexual abuse and ask not to be identified.

“How would I rank the park district’s response? I give them an F,” the woman said.

She added, “It’s been blundered to an embarrassing extent. They should be embarrassed by how they’ve handled it. They should be apologizing and saying, they’ll try to do better. And they should be bringing in people who know how to handle these situations. They should admit they don’t know how to do this.”

The woman, now a teacher in her late 30s, has said “sexual harassment was the norm, daily, and assault was common and dealt with in-house” at the beach where she worked.

Julie Tortorich — who said she was abused two times in a park office by a supervisor when she worked as a lifeguard in the 1970s — said Lightfoot should fire Kelly and LaVelle over their handling of the scandal.

Tortorich also repeatedly has called on park district officials to come clean about the scandal.

WBEZ is suing the park district and the mayor’s office for access to public records they have declined to release.

“I feel like everything’s moving painfully slow,” Tortorich said. “It’s disturbing to me. How much more do women need to take when things like this happen for justice to be served or policies to be put in place, so this kind of behavior doesn’t happen anymore?”

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Patrick Smith is a criminal justice reporter.