A blog dedicated to child welfare has become a forum for anonymous River Forest residents to weigh in on the case of Robert Gaskill.
Gaskill, 63, of River Forest, was indicted in February on two felony counts of predatory sexual assault against a child after allegations surfaced that he'd abused two young girls in his care. After the extraordinarily high bond amount was reduced to $250,000 from $50 million, Gaskill was able to post bond and remains free on electronic monitoring.
Earlier Patch Coverage:
As the case has unfolded, an activist website called REFORM (Rally Ethics for Orphans an At-Risk Minors) Talk has become the de facto forum for community discussion. The blog acts as part message board, part resource agency (it's MO: "We are on the side of justice and to give voice to the voiceless and powerless, and in this case it means the CHILDREN") and occasionally highlights troubling cases across the country.
The page on the Gaskill case, originally a collection of local news stories and updates, has exploded with anonymous comments, many from people claiming to be River Forest residents, former family friends of the Gaskills or members of their church.
The authenticity of those claims is nearly impossible to determine: not a single person has put a real name to a comment.
But the discussions are specific and detailed, with some posters maintaining they've been to the Gaskill house for parties, that they've bumped into the family at the River Forest Tennis Club or were once members of the family's "inner circle."
Many have claimed the Gaskills verbally and emotionally abused the two girls who've come forward with the allegations. Some commenters are expressing regret that they didn't speak out against what they saw.
"We are remembering a home in which we saw mistreatment of the adopted/foster children in our presence by our very eyes," one writer said.
Says another: "I was once in the inner circle and was often confused by much of what I witnessed. It took awhile to wise up and make the decision to pull away, a tricky dance as there were relationships built between the children, as well as the reality of the family's widespread involvement and influence in the church we attended."
Commenters on the forum are pledging to write letters of support for the alleged victims and urging residents to contact police and state child welfare agencies about what they've seen.
The comments on the forum may be a reaction to the support for Gaskill shown by his family, friends and church members. During earlier hearings they packed the court room in a show of unity and solidarity.
River Forest Police Department Chief Gregory Weiss said he hadn't heard of the website, and said he wasn't aware of any letters that had been written on behalf of, or in support of, the victims.
"What we'd do with those letters, if they're of evidentiary value, we'd have to give them to the State's Attorney's Office as part of their evidence," Weiss said. "But saying 'I feel bad' or 'I feel guilty' or that 'I should've recognized the signs' isn't of evidentiary value."
During an arraignment hearing at the Maybrook courthouse in March, prosecutors laid out their charges, including allegations that Gaskill's drinking led to inappropriate kissing, touching and "digital penetration" of the girls, and that they were forced to indulge his biting fetish.
According to Oak Leaves, prosecutors said Gaskill, a child welfare advocate and former newspaper publisher, began abusing the girls at different times. One of the girls was 6 or 7 years old in 1996; the second girl was roughly 12 years old when the alleged abuse began several years later, in 2004.
Prosecutors also said Gaskill confessed to the abuse after his Feb. 2 arrest.
Gaskill's new attorney Ellen Domph, the defense attorney who replaced lawyer Kelly Seago after she withdrew as Gaskill's counsel, attempted to clarify that by saying a written confession does not exist. Calls to Domph seeking comment for this story were not returned.
Gaskill requested to be kept in protective custody at the Cook County jail, where he was held after his Feb. 2 arrest. After coming up with the $25,000 bond, his March 17 release from jail came with stipulations: He's under electronic monitoring at an undiclosed location and will only be allowed to visit his doctor and his church. He's been ordered to keep away from minors.
The state's Department of Children and Family Services in February said three adopted children and two foster children living in the River Forest home were removed and placed into other homes.
Gaskill's release came with a stern warning from Judge Noreen Love. Quoting from the Oak Leaves: “I want you to understand, Mr. Gaskill, the way it’s set up, if you’re at a certain (permitted) location, (the sheriff) will send an officer by that location. And if you’re not there, off to jail you’ll go.”
A status hearing is set for April 26.