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'You determine your future': Peoria attorney Yolanda Riley reflects on experience growing up in local foster care

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Hannah Alani
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WCBU
Peoria attorney Yolanda Riley poses for a portrait outside the WCBU newsroom.

Not many attorneys who take family law cases can understand exactly what their clients are going through, but that’s not the case for Peoria lawyer Yolanda Riley.

Riley grew up in various foster care homes throughout the Peoria area. Following her graduation from Manuel High School, she studied speech communication and criminal justice at Illinois State University before earning her J.D. from Southern Illinois University Law School.

Riley started her career in the Atlanta area but returned to Peoria in recent years. She founded a private practice, Yolanda Riley Law, last year.

With experience in both criminal defense and civil law, including all areas of family law and expungements and sealings, Riley has a contract with Peoria Public Schools’ Wraparound Center to assist families dealing with various legal issues.

In a conversation with WCBU’s Hannah Alani, Riley talks about how her personal experiences inform her practice.

The following is a transcript of an interview that aired during an episode of “All Things Peoria” on Friday, Jan. 7. It has been edited for length and clarity.  

Yolanda Riley: I ended up bouncing around Peoria a lot. I think when we originally got here, I probably was on the south side. And then by the time that I started to move around in homes, it would be from the south side up to Sterling area. I attended a lot of grade schools around here, but only attended one high school, so stuck with Manual.

Hannah Alani: When did you know that you wanted to go into law? Was that something you figured out in undergrad? Or did you know that even when you were younger?

Yolanda Riley: I definitely knew when I was younger. I tell the story all the time. I used to watch the Cosbys. Clair Huxtable was the first Black attorney that I saw on television. I thought she was just, top to bottom, just awesome. She was fierce and she dressed well, articulate, you know. She took no stuff. So yeah, she was who I kind of looked up to.

Hannah Alani: You probably get asked this a lot. But how did your experience in the foster care system inform your view, as a lawyer?

Yolanda Riley: It makes me so much more connected on the reality of a lot of things that people in my profession, I think that they think they know, you know whether it’s because they read a book, you know, how to analyze these children, how to connect. And sometimes I really feel like, in practice, as I'm watching people, that they really don't get it.

I actually was on a criminal case a couple of years ago. And there was a psychologist whose name, I'm like, “His name sounds very familiar.” He would analyze these children and determine whether or not they will be repeat offenders … At some point, I remembered where I saw his name. Because I had requested my DCFS records. And I saw his name in my records. And I thought that it was so interesting, because I went back to look at my records. And he essentially said that I would be a tyrant. I'm just like, it's so crazy, because I wasn't a problematic child. Always was on the honor roll, and all of these things. And I never had heard that before. Never heard this opinion from counselors or teachers or anything. But to know that they determine whether or not these children will be successful in society, by one person, because of, you know, the doctorate behind their name … I thought was, you know, to me is crazy.

Knowing what I've been through and what I've achieved, and someone can label you, you know … So when I hear other people's opinion, in this profession, whether it's about a kid, or a mom, they can be so sure of themselves, and sure of who they are judging. But I always keep things like that in the back of my mind. I tell other kids – I speak to kids sometimes … “You determine your future.” And, “Because someone is labeling you, you know, X, Y and Z, doesn't mean that that's the outcome.” So you know, that connection with growing up in foster care, on the south side, a lot of that allows me a different perspective, that a lot of people in my field, you know … they won't ever have.

Hannah Alani: Wow, that psychologist, is he's still working?

Yolanda Riley: Yes. I literally, he was on our case, like about two years ago. I was a co-counsel on that case.

Hannah Alani: Did you think about confronting him?

Yolanda Riley: I did. I did. But you know, I was co-counsel and I had a veteran attorney … and I didn't want him to be thinking that I'm spazzed out. And I wouldn't have, you know. You keep things to yourself. Because at the end of the day, it doesn't matter. I got to where I needed to be, with little help from the people who, who might have thought that I needed it from them.

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Hannah Alani
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WCBU
Peoria attorney Yolanda Riley poses for a portrait inside the WCBU newsroom.

Hannah Alani: Obviously, in family law, those DCFS records play a huge role, right? So do you ever come across cases where the reality of someone's situation, or what you see with your own eyes, just isn't really matching up to what, for lack of a better word, the “system” has deemed?

Yolanda Riley: I think DCFS needs, so much, like, it needs so much work. There are great caseworkers out there, social workers out there. But what I will say is the system to me, from what I knew then, and even what I know now, what I see in practice is it seems to be that they are very dismissive sometimes of parents, and when they are trying to get their children back. I feel like there should be, really more things in place to help, you know … These people are usually addicts, and it’s deeper than just saying, “Put down the bottle,” or, “Put down the pipe,” or whatever that is. It’s an addiction.

Hannah Alani: Can you tell us a little bit more about The Wraparound Center? Can you tell us, without naming names or any identifying details, a bit about some of the families you've helped since starting there?

Yolanda Riley: The primary cases that I have seen are expungement sealings. Because of the timeframe that that takes, maybe a minimum of 120 days, you know, people are very emotional about that. Because some of these are weights around their neck … Can be as far back as the 70s, the 80s, for some of my clients. And they're finally getting to turn the page on that.

And other cases that I've had, that have clearly left a mark on individuals, are orders of protection. I was surprised at how many orders of protection cases that I came into contact with, right out of the gate. And so obviously, these are dealing with people's livelihoods, and you know, physical safety. … The amount of young women, like, very young women … You think you know, in your 20s, like what you would deal with, but these people find themselves in these positions. And it's not as easy to get out of, and some of them are actually trying to get out of, or positioning themselves to get out of these situations. It's frustrating because you want the system to work so much faster, especially when there is a situation where you can avoid, you know, someone losing their life potentially.

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Hannah Alani
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WCBU
Attorney Yolanda Riley, left, and Derrick Booth standing outside The Wraparound Center on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2021.

Hannah Alani: Can you talk a little bit more about some of those recent cases you've had and some of the circumstances for some of those families whose lives have been changed, individuals whose lives have been changed because of getting records?

Yolanda Riley: Yeah, since I started in June with District 150, the first bulk, I think, expungements/sealings were granted around September-ish. And I actually even, am still following up. Within 60 days, they have to seal or expunge that record, just to make sure that part is done. I know that, two particular cases, for example, were outside that 60 day range, and I still seen their jail records up. So I'm having to like say, “I need this down.”

So I can't say that anyone has called me and told me specifically like, “I landed this job because of my cases being removed.” But I can tell you the gratitude in their voices. The thank you cards. Coming back to the Wraparound Center to thank me personally. Because they know, this is just step one into so many great things that's like going to be laid out for them.

Hannah Alani: You could have gone back to a big city and practiced law in a big city. Why are you here? Why do you do this here – not just in your hometown, but in a community this size?

Yolanda Riley: Yeah. I'm gonna be honest, that was actually my goal, to go back to Georgia. Or somewhere. Like I wanted to take the bar in two different states. But you know, what actually ended up happening, is I kind of laid down some roots with an externship that I completed with Judge Mihm in federal court. And that was in like, I think, my last summer? Or the summer before my last summer? And I loved that experience. Got to connect with a lot of locals. That … even made it a possibility for me to stay here. Because at first, I was like, “This is not happening. I gotta go.” But … those connections that I made in that externship made me think that I could, you know, possibly stay here, at least for a little while. And then I ended up having a baby. And that even made it an easier decision because the bulk of my support system is here.

And in this particular field, there are probably literally four or five Black attorneys here. And with that demographic, and the uniqueness of my story in particular, it made it easier to do what I can while I'm here. If I choose to go somewhere else later on down the line, but while I'm here, utilize what I've learned with all my upbringing, and then helping someone else in the community that I came from.

To get in contact with Yolanda Riley, visit her website.

The Wraparound Center is located inside Trewyn Middle School, 1419 S. Folkers Ave. (The center is on the northside of the school, facing Latrobe Street.) More information online.

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Hannah Alani is a reporter at WCBU. She joined the newsroom in 2021. She can be reached at hmalani@ilstu.edu.