April 21, 2016

Juvenile correction saga continues

By: Sen. Lena C. Taylor

The crisis continues.

Last winter, the scandal of mistreatment broke that there was widespread abuse of both students and workers at Lincoln Hills & Copper Lake, our state’s only juvenile correctional facilities.

In December, Senator Fred Risser (D-Madison) and I wrote a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Van Vanggaard (R-Racine) asking for a legislative investigation into the situation. He denied the request.

In January, I went up to Lincoln Hills to see for myself what was going on. I didn’t just go by myself. Since over half of the kids at Lincoln Hills are from Milwaukee County, I brought the kids their community. The trip included members of the ministry and organizations that help kids deal with trauma from the Milwaukee community.

In February, we followed that by bringing the Black History Legacy Bus up to the kids to teach them about their own culture and their own history. It’s important that they know, throughout this tragedy, that they are not alone.

What I learned after talking with the kids is that they lack access to trauma informed care, art and inspiration therapy, clinical services, programming and a connection to their family and community. I also saw firsthand how they are understaffed and the staff are in need of assistance, including diversity training.

But I wasn’t the only one to make the trip. Milwaukee County Circuit Chief Judge called the treatment of the youth “inhumane” in January. Judge White backed up her comments in February by issuing a letter to the Milwaukee County Executive and County Board. In her letter, she stated youth are “not receiving the appropriate care and services” and the facilities have “proven ineffective in a myriad of ways.” Judge White is right in her letter when she says, “We are in a crisis situation.”

The poor treatment of the kids at Lincoln Hills has caused judges not to sentence kids there. Instead, troubled kids are being diverted to the Milwaukee County Juvenile Detention Center in Wauwatosa. This week, we learned they are facing extreme staffing shortages and overcrowding. Workers there have faced mandatory 12-hour shifts and there have been 33 days where the facility has exceeded its capacity.

Even County officials agree. Health and Human Services Director Hector Colon wrote “the environment can create a heightened risk of incidents.” Total admissions in the first three months of this year is up to 520 from 461 last year. It’s gotten so bad, we’ve got kids sleeping on the floor.

This is such a sad and disappointing situation. Just like adults, when kids make mistakes, they pay their debt to society too. However, we must remember that at the end of the day, they are kids. Their brains haven’t fully developed and they may have troubled childhoods that led them to become troubled youth. We call it the Department of Corrections, not the Department of Punishment. We need to address these children’s problems. The stick only gets you so far. We need more carrots.

Our state has failed these kids. The Lincoln Hills crisis has gone on far too long. The judge is right. Those children aren’t being adequately cared for. She’s not wrong to want to sentence more kids to stay in Milwaukee County, but we can’t create our very own local Lincoln Hills crisis here either. I know local officials are trying to solve the staffing and overcrowding issue. In the meantime, I’ve been trying to do my part too.

I’ve called on Governor Scott Walker to call a special session to address our juvenile corrections. For starters, these are kids and all juvenile corrections should be housed under the Department of Children and Families. Maybe if we treated them a little more like troubled teens and a little less like hardened criminals, we’d get better results. Additionally, I’ve asked Governor Walker to make emergency funds available to Milwaukee County to alleviate our overcrowding and staffing shortages here at home.

This crisis impacts us all. I believe government has a role to play here, but so do our churches, neighborhood associations, families and schools. We must all be a part of this solution, or we’re just part of the problem.  

To join Senator Taylor in her Legislative efforts, stay in the loop at Facebook.com/SenLenaTaylor, Twitter.com/SenTaylor, Instagram.com/Lena.Taylor or join her email list by emailing Sen.Taylor@legis.wi.gov.