Flint, MI– “This is not a kid jail.”

That’s what the Genesee County Court Administrator Rhonda Ihm wants people to know about the new $20 million Juvenile Justice Center being built to replace the old one, parts of which are more than a hundred years old and not entirely functional. 

Replacing the building had been discussed for several years, but the project was only approved by the Board of Commissioners in 2019.

The current center is designed as a detention facility. “Detention” will now just be a part of the equation, Ihm said, and a part that the Family Division of the court is working to make smaller and smaller. The new justice center will be focused on data-driven trauma-informed rehabilitation and treatment.

The detention center, located on Pasadena Avenue, was once run by the state of Michigan, and was taken over by the county in 2002 and is operated by the courts.

The project is not without its critics. Some community members have voiced their disappointment in the fact that funding is going to this facility, and not to more preventative resources to keep children from ending up in the system in the first place. 

But members of the court hope that the intensive programming planned for the new facility will keep kids from returning and resolve issues at home that led them to this point. 

Diverting kids from the system

Ihm said the court system has been working hard to divert kids from the system whenever possible so they never have to go to a court hearing, be in front of a judge, or be at risk of getting detained. 

“Not every kid is in need of secure detention,” Ihm said. “It should be reserved for kids who present a public safety risk to the community or themself. You want to be able to identify low-risk kids who get caught up in the system but don’t need secure detention, and do other things with them.”

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Whenever the court gets a petition for a child, they review it to see if the offense meets the requirements of something they can divert. If they can, the victim must be contacted and agree that a diversion is OK. Then a diversion conference is held with the child, and their parents. They are given assessments to evaluate risk and mental health, and then referred to various programs for rehabilitation. A diversion worker monitors the child to make sure they’re engaging with the program, and if they are, the case is closed without ever going to a court hearing.

In 2017, 24% of all petitions filed were diverted. In 2018, it was 25% and in 2019, it was 35%. Of those diversions, 92% of them were successful and the child has not come back to court. 

Ihm said they only detain children if they are a very high risk to themselves or they’re community, if they’ve committed a serious crime, or if they’re on probation and they get another criminal charge.  

But Ihm said they’re not detaining kids for technical violations of their probation.

The average age of youth on probation is 14.7 years old, she said. 

“Developmentally, at that age they do dumb things,” Ihm said. “They get in trouble in school, use alcohol, or smoke, or break curfew…That’s not necessarily a community safety issue or risk issue that they need to be detained for. That behavior can be dealt with in different ways.”

In 2017, the court began implementing the Accountability and Incentive Management program which gave sanctions and incentives to children on probation.

When a child technically violated their probation, instead of being detained, they would receive a sanction, like not being allowed to attend certain after-school activities. Incentives for good behavior might look like giving the child a gift certificate to buy a new pair of shoes if that was something they’d wanted. 

“I included incentives in the program because, for me, I always think about what I would do as a parent if my child was doing these things,” Ihm said. “It’s important for families to learn how to manage behaviors too, because sometimes families don’t have those skills.”

Using diversion techniques and not detaining for technical violations of probation has resulted in fewer children being detained.

In 2016, the detention center had an average of 27 kids under the jurisdiction of the Family division in the population. In 2017, it dropped to 24. In 2018 and 2019, it dropped to 21. In 2020, there were 14 kids in the population on average.  

Trauma-informed Treatment

According to Circuit Court Judge John Gadola, 85% of children that come into the system for a crime, have already been in the system as a subject of child abuse or child neglect. 

He said there are five things that exist in every juvenile case he sees:

  1. The absence of a family structure
  2. Educational needs not being met
  3. Substance abuse
  4. Guns in the hands of kids 
  5. Mental health needs not being met

“If they’re victimized as a child, abused as a child, in a home environment that’s not safe, growing up in poverty, with a lack of family structure and a lack of education…all of that is why this is happening,” Gadola said. “That’s what walks into the court.”

Knowledge and understanding of the trauma that the children have experienced, is necessary to provide proper treatment, Gadola said. 

“These are not kid issues,” Ihm said. “These are family issues. It’s rare that a kid would just go out and commit a serious crime without there being some family dynamic that led to it…we try to target that with programming.”

The new facility will have a day treatment center accessible to children who are detained, as well as moderate to high-risk kids who don’t need to be detained, but need a level of intensive programming.

It will be open from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Children will start the day the way they would a regular school day, being taught by teachers from Mt. Morris schools. 

After school, they will have meal time with their families, and then attend evidence-based family-oriented treatment programs. 

The programs they will offer includes Multi-systemic Family Therapy run by Genesee Health Systems, Family Functional Therapy and Inter Transgenerational Trauma run by Easterseals of Michigan. 

These programs are all designed to improve family dynamics, and deal with family traumas that have never been worked through. Ihm said oftentimes parents have trauma that hasn’t been dealt with, and once they work through it, they can become better parents. 

Ihm said there are other programs too which help kids change risky thinking and develop coping skills. 

All of these programs will be a part of the new facility, but they have started implementing them at the current facility now too. 

Ihm said all of the staff is trained in this same model of treatment so as kids move from detention to day treatment to probation, they will deal with the same kinds of programs. 

“These kids have been in the neglect system, now they’re in the juvenile justice system,” Ihm said. “What breaks that cycle is focusing on family models. We really have to work with the family to restore trauma, so we get the family to a better place and resolve the long-term generational issues that lead a kid to this point.” 

The incorporation of trauma-informed therapy and family in juvenile justice treatments have been proven to be effective. 

A frequently cited model is of juvenile justice reform in Missouri, known as the “Missouri Model.” 

They swapped out big detention facilities for smaller group homes and treatment centers, and employed youth developmental specialists instead of correctional guards. The focus was placed on therapy, education, and incorporating the child’s family into the treatment. 

According to the Missouri Division of Youth Services report for 2019, “more than 70% of discharges remained law-abiding after three years and this has remained consistent over the past five years.”

They also found that “of all youth discharged during FY 2019, 86% were productively involved at the time of discharge,” meaning they were involved in school, or employed. 

“DYS has learned that some youth lapse into serious and chronic delinquency as a coping mechanism in response to earlier abuse, neglect, or trauma,” wrote Richard Mendel in a research report of the Missouri Model. “In these cases, DYS believes that the underlying difficulties must be acknowledged and addressed before change is likely to occur.”

Leon EL-Alamin can attest to the importance of trauma-informed therapy.

Alamin is a formerly incarcerated individual and founder and executive director of the M.A.D.E. Institute, a nonprofit organization on a mission to help people returning from the criminal justice system, and to prevent at-risk youth from going down that road. 

M.A.D.E stands for Money, Attitude, Direction, and Education. The organization provides comprehensive programming to help formerly incarcerated people enter the workforce, find housing, develop life skills, and deal with their trauma. 

“This community has been traumatized several times over with the water crisis, poverty, ongoing violence, and now COVID-19,” Alamin said. “Trauma has been in my life, I know it first-hand. Through reeducation and spirituality, I learned the importance of therapy.” 

But he also knows the importance of creating a better environment.

“I was a statistic from being incarcerated, and from my lifestyle,” Alamin said. “Everyone around me, young and old, was being shot up and killed. I know the importance of changing the environment which you live in…programming is not just gonna work. We need to get out in front of these things before it happens.”

Trauma-informed Design

A big concern of critics of the project is the idea that detention centers are a “prison pipeline.”

“Detention centers are designed to prepare you for prison,” Alamin said. 

Ihm is hoping to do the opposite of that with the new facility. 

There are several issues with the current juvenile detention facility, she said. More than just being very old, the design was not “meeting the developmental needs of kids.”

“We want them to feel like they’re in school, not like they’re in jail,” Ihm said. “If you treat them like they’re incarcerated, they’re going to act like they’re incarcerated.” 

She said a lot of research went into trauma-informed design– the psychology of colors, the angles of walls, the access to natural light and outdoor space. 

The new facility will have a lot of natural light and visibility of the outside, as well as plenty of outdoor space for the kids to go outside for different activities. 

“In the building now, on the inside of the building during the day, you can’t see outside,” Ihm said. “For those kids that are there for a very long time and can’t see outside…they’re kids. It’s not right to treat kids that way.” 

The current building also does not allow for the separation of kids based on their risk level or age. The new building will have three pods so kids can be properly grouped.

“We don’t want young 11 or 12 year olds there for domestic violence to get in the same group as a 17-year-old who may be in there for attempted murder,” Ihm said. “It just makes sense…the new design will allow us to make good decisions and not mix groups.” 

Ihm said there are architects who specialize in building jails and secure facilities, and architects who specialize in building schools working on the building. The language they have used throughout the design process has been important for Ihm. 

“The architects wanted to call the rooms sleep cells at first,” Ihm said. “I told them, I don’t have cells, they’re sleeping rooms. They’re not inmates, they’re kids.”

The Missouri Model did the same thing, and designed facilities “in a distinctly non-correctional style.”

According to the research report, instead of “cells,” the children had warmly decorated dorm rooms, and facility walls hung the children’s writing and artwork.

“In general, Missouri designs the treatment environment to normalize the experience
for youth, to the extent possible, based on its belief that the less they treat a young person like
a criminal, the less likely he or she will be to feel and behave like a criminal,” Mendel wrote.

The Cost

Even with the intensive programming and the costs of a new building, Ihm said this development is actually cost-saving.

That’s because with better intensive programming, fewer kids will need to end up in residential placement (more serious long-term detainment or treatment) or detainment (shorter-term placements for kids awaiting trial), and more kids will be able to stay in their communities. The courts have already been working on lowering the number of kids in residential placement.

In 2016, there were 34 kids in residential placement. In 2017, it decrease to 22. In 2018, it was 21, and in 2019, it was 13. Last year, there were 14 kids in residential placement. 

Ihm said residential placement can be very expensive. The least expensive placement they have is $175 per day. The most expensive is $343 per day. Ihm said kids could be in residential placements anywhere from six months to a year. Sometimes the placements are out of state, where kids can’t see their families. 

Since 2016, Ihm said they have saved $1.6 million by lowering the numbers of kids sent to residential placements. 

“If we can keep kids here in the community, treat them here, it’s not only better for the kids, it’s a better use of public dollars,” Ihm said. 

For Alamin, public dollars would be best spent on schools, grocery stores, and job creation.

“I’m very disappointed we can put all those millions into a new juvenile detention center, and we do not even have a functioning high school on Flint’s north side,” he said. “I give them credit if they’re going to implement trauma-informed practices and services to kids once they’re in there, but that’s after the fact. What are we going to do to prevent it?”

Alamin said there needs to be a collaborative effort between organizations on the outside working to change the environment kids are in, as well as organizations working to treat the children who are already in the system.

“The environment is what needs to change, but I can’t change that,” said Judge Gadola. “But we can treat it and we’re on the cutting edge of providing treatment…we can and will become a model of juvenile justice not only in the state, but in the country. This is something we should be proud of.”

The new facility is set to be finished in 2022. 

Amy Diaz

Amy Diaz is a journalist hailing from St. Petersburg, FL. She has written for multiple local newspapers in her hometown before becoming a full-time reporter for Flint Beat. When she’s not writing you...