Special Report: New program to keep incarcerated juveniles close to home

October 3, 2012
by Edgar Mendez

Juveniles line up in the hallway outside of a classroom at the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center, 10201 W. Watertown Plank Road in Wauwatosa. (Photo by Edgar Mendez)

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For families of Milwaukee youth locked away in the side-by-side secure detention facilities of Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills schools in the unincorporated town of Irma, Wis., a visit is more like a journey. Four hours north they go, past countless barns, rolling hills and rows of hardwood trees. And that’s if they have a car and can afford the gas to get there, let alone an overnight stay at a hotel.

After the 2011 closing of Ethan Allen School, a boys’ reformatory in southeastern Wisconsin, there was no other option but to send male juveniles to Irma, cut off from their families. But a recent policy change approved by the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors has made it possible for some young men to be sentenced closer to home.

In June, at the recommendation of the Department of Health and Human Services Delinquency and Court Services Division, the council implemented a short-term placement program at the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center, 10201 W. Watertown Plank Road, in Wauwatosa.

The policy change will affect about 40 incarcerated teenage boys a year, who will be sent to the secure detention center in Wauwatosa for up to 180 days. In 2010, 138 Milwaukee youth were placed in secure detention.

In addition to the opportunity to maintain bonds with their family, the youth will have access to community resources unavailable to them in Irma.  To be eligible a juvenile must be considered to be at a high-risk for recidivism.

The Milwaukee County Accountability Program (MCAP), created in conjunction with the adoption of the 2011-2013 State Budget Act 32, is an alternative juvenile corrections program, offering young men a chance to change their self-destructive behavior before they end up in the adult prison system. Act 32 allows juvenile courts to place youth in local secure detention facilities for up to 180 days, if approved by a county board of supervisors.

The program is structured to help participating juveniles build ties with their families as they prepare to return to troubled homes and communities. It allows teens to begin the crucial healing process. The MCAP launch is on hold while the staff is trained to implement the new program.

Curtis Woods, program manager for the First Time Juvenile Offender Program (FTJOP), said that engaging the family is key to helping young people understand the consequences of their bad choices, because negative behaviors often are rooted within the family.

“We have kids growing up in poor homes, their parents are dealing with AODA (alcohol and other drug abuse) and mental health issues, and they’re reacting to the actions of the adults they’re supposed to be guided by,” Wood said.

Weekly counseling sessions at the detention center will include parents or guardians when possible, and will focus on preparing for the youth’s eventual return home or to a foster care placement.

“It’s already been proven that sending kids away doesn’t help them make changes; being here to intervene and help stop them from going down that route will ultimately translate to safer communities,” said Dawn Barnett, co-executive director of the Running Rebels community organization. Running Rebels has been working with at-risk and youth offenders for years and already has in place a team of mentors to help monitor the MCAP youth.

Woods is a bit less optimistic than Barnett. He considers programs such as MCAP and even the First Time Juvenile Offender Program band-aids or quick fixes.

Teacher Holly Hill, who’s been teaching at the center for five years, gives reading lessons to a group of 16- and 17-year-olds. (Photo by Edgar Mendez)

“They’re plugging one leak while another continues to drip; it’s the system and the families that are broken,” Woods said.

Still, he believes that MCAP has the right approach to helping troubled youth from impoverished families.

“It’s now the juvenile justice system’s job to build families and that’s not what it was designed to do, so it will take that collaborative effort with social service agencies to help these families,” Woods said.

Added Barnett, “People are notorious for doing the same thing just because that’s the way its always been done; I’m just glad to do something new that will change lives and have a positive impact in our communities.”

The one-year program includes a five-month placement in the secure detention facility in Wauwatosa, followed by a period of community aftercare in which youths will be monitored by both a probation officer and a community monitor from Running Rebels.

It also includes education, Juvenile Cognitive Intervention Programming (JCIP), substance abuse education and counseling, and a restorative justice program.

Idle minds

The Wauwatosa School District has been running a five-day a week school program, in conjunction with the Department of Public Instruction, at the Phillips Juvenile Justice Center facility since 1995. The programming will be extended to include MCAP participants, who will be taught in separate classrooms from the six already utilized at the detention center.

The mandatory classes range from civics and reading to art. According to Thomas Wanta, interim administrator of juvenile and court services for Milwaukee County, students in the program thrive.

“The youth here often increase their competence by one to two grade levels in reading during the short time they’re here,” Wanta said.

James Ross, detention center supervisor, said that is because many of the teens who end up at Phillips are not going to school on a regular basis. “An idle mind is not getting nourished; once they start learning here their shell begins to soften and learning helps them see things differently,” Ross said.

Ross added that the program has a library that allows the youths to check out books to take back to their cells and they also have some access to classroom computers and the Internet.

The MCAP program includes a school credit recovery program to help kids obtain their high school diplomas.

Changing thought processes

The Juvenile Cognitive Intervention Program is designed to help youth examine the way they think and change their thought process, resulting in better choices.

“The old-school approach doesn’t work,” according to Barnett of Running Rebels, which runs the program.

She said the old “I’m going to tell you what to do and you’re going to do it” approach is ineffective. “Young people need to see for themselves that their life isn’t going right and then (we) show them how to change it,” Barnett added.

Running Rebels will run daily groups at the center based around the concepts of choices, changes and challenges. The organization also will run a monitoring program for the teens beginning while they’re still incarcerated and continuing after they return to their community.

“That will help us build a relationship with the youth on the front end and that will continue because the trust has already been established,” Barnett said.

The Milwaukee Police Department also will be aware of juveniles participating in the MCAP program and will help monitor and mentor them in the community, according to Wanta.

Building Community

Restorative Justice groups will be formed within the program to help build a sense of community for the participants.

Professionals are brought in to help the youth examine their behavior and its impact on their victims, community, family and themselves, according to Wanta. “We have a captive audience that needs to rethink their choices and see how their behavior is having a negative impact on others as well,” he said.

Still, regardless of the programming they participate in, the young men all eventually will return to their communities and face the streets and homes they left.

Unless something at home has changed for the better, according to Woods, they’ll go right back into survival mode, adding, “We have to clean up the homes we’re sending these kids back to.”

Comments

3 Responses to “Special Report: New program to keep incarcerated juveniles close to home”

  1. Jose says:

    Good article.

  2. Elena says:

    This is great!

  3. Heather Ronaldson says:

    Great reporting, Edgar! Fantastic lead, too. :)

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