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  • May 07, 2019

    Lessons for Guardians ad Litem from 'Milwaukee 53206'

    It is the task of guardians ad litem to get to know the issues their clients are struggling with. Christie A. Linskens Christie discusses the lessons that can be learned from the examination of mass incarceration's impact in one Wisconsin community, as shown in the award-winning film, Milwaukee 53206.

    Christie A. Christie

    Milwaukee 53206 photo

    Attorneys who represent children and families involved in the child welfare system face many challenges when advocating for the interests of their clients. The children, parents, and relatives in these cases may be predominantly minority, live in poverty, and face disproportionate rates of incarceration.

    Attorneys representing families involved in the child protection services system need to be aware of and sensitive to the unique issues and needs their clients struggle with.

    Milwaukee 53206

    The award-winning documentary, Milwaukee 53206, brings to the forefront the struggles facing families living in the ZIP code area that incarcerates the highest percentage of black men not only in Wisconsin, but in America.

    Christie A. Linskens Christie Christie A. Linskens Christie, Marquette 1987, is a staff attorney in the guardian ad litem division of the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, Inc., and an adjunct professor of law at Marquette University Law School.

    The movie chronicles the stories of three residents from the named ZIP code area, whose stories show the devastating impact of mass incarceration on the families in that community. “The film illuminates the story of people from across the United States who live with the daily effects of mass incarceration,” according to the film’s guide.

    Other issues set this neighborhood apart as well. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, one third of Milwaukee’s vacant lots are in this area code, two-thirds of the children in this neighborhood live in poverty, almost 95 of the neighborhood’s residents are black, and residents of this area received the lowest health outcome ratings.

    You can view the film on For more information on the background and making of Milwaukee 53206 see and the film’s website.

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    MILWAUKEE 53206 is a documentary that chronicles the lives of those affected by incarceration in America's most incarcerated zip code.

    The Film’s Impact

    Since the film premiered in June 2016, city officials in Milwaukee begun to address the neighborhood’s issues, including initiating a doula pilot program. A recent article published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel highlights support efforts by the Milwaukee community though the initiation of a doula pilot program.

    Other efforts include the involvement of local agencies. In January 2019, the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, Inc., received a three-year WisTAF grant, with the primary objective of bringing legal services to the 53206 and 53204 areas. The goal is to increase the economic asset base in these neighborhoods by offering legal services for financial stabilization, stabilizing housing and improving habitability, and addressing conditions for predatory lending.

    Addressing the Issues as Guardians ad Litem – Law Student Responses

    In preparation for work in the field of child welfare, the law students enrolled in the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Workshop at Marquette University Law School recently participated in a private screening of the film. Afterward, they were instructed to write down their impressions, such as what they learned from the movie, the impact that living in the 53206 area has on children, or how a GAL would approach a case originating from this community.

    How did the screening of Milwaukee 53206 impact student perceptions of their work in child welfare? Here are their responses.

    “As a GAL, we represent a child’s best interest; in order to make a recommendation for that child’s best interest to the court, the GAL must first understand the child – their background, home life, prior trauma, and family dynamic. They must identify healthy and not healthy relationships, they must identify mentors for the children, and they must find where the child will be able to grow and thrive to become productive members of our community. When a GAL is confronted with a case where the child is suffering the pain of having an incarcerated parent, that child is missing the opportunity to bond with that parent, to know that parent, and to grow up in the home with that parent. This seriously disrupts the bond between the parent and the child. The parent is missing key activities and events in the child lives. As a GAL we must work diligently to understand the situation and do our best to help the child so that we can change this system. We must end the cycle of incarceration, we cannot have children growing up and falling into the pipeline of incarceration.” Michelle Grasso, 3L.

    “For me personally, the topic hit home – everyone in the documentary looked like me. Almost everyone in the documentary was black, brown, and young. In fact, I am from that same ZIP code, and even witnessed a high school classmate be present throughout the documentary. I wish the film can shed more light on the positives things going on in the ZIP code, not just the incarceration rate. Before this documentary came out, a 2007 study done by UW-Milwaukee found that the black male incarceration rate of 62 percent represented a 336% increase in the number of felons living in the community with the 53206 area. As the film stated, the most amount of men ever incarcerated in the world has come out of this ZIP code. In my opinion, this film puts a negative blanket and allows stereotypes to be formed on my ZIP code and over embellishes the negative things in the community. In my eyes, the film showed me that my ZIP code is a place where black men go to get a life sentence, and while I recognize the hard truth of the matter I also, however, acknowledge my truth. In my personal experiences growing up in the neighborhood, I remember we left our doors unlocked at night. I also remember running from house to house playing with friends, neighborhood block parties, basketball games at the park, and the neighborhood farmers market. To this day my favorite places in Milwaukee are a lot of the community’s mom and pop restaurants and shops. While Milwaukee’s 53206 ZIP code may never be perfect, this will forever be home, and ironically, where I feel safest even after obtaining a law degree.” Terreea Shropshire, 2L

    “My first impression is how much value they place on family, which is a great way for the individuals in the community to develop resilience after the trauma they go through on a daily basis. Particularly, the young boy who said he wanted to start an organization for the children in the community so they always feel like they have a family, even if theirs is broken. I think it is important for a GAL working in this community to understand just how important the family ties are, especially when considering placement of children. It is important to recognize that, in this community, not only are your blood relatives your family, but your neighbors and the people around you are considered family. If a child needs to be placed out of the home, the GAL should look to the other adults in their lives who are capable of caring for them when determining placement, rather than ripping them from their community and putting them in the foster system with strangers.” Anne Lally, 3L

    “Watching the life of Beverly Walker and her ability to keep her family intact touched a special place in my heart, as my father was incarcerated for a felony conviction for most of my childhood as well. As Daron Walker’s family entered the Fox Lake Correctional Institution to visit him, one child described it best of having two vastly different emotions running at the exact same time. On one hand, you are excited to hug your father, smell your father, kiss his stubble cheek – all while you sit back and take in all of his facial expressions to feel that brief connection. While at the same time, you know that your time with him is only temporary, and at the end of the day, he is not coming home. For a short moment during that visit, you forget that your father is wearing a jumpsuit as you sit proudly on his lap. That is – until you have to get down so that he may go stand in line for roll call. It is at that time that you remember that your dad doesn’t belong to you, he belongs to the Department of Corrections.” Jillian Clausen, 3L

    “This film is a profound example of the complexities of working in such areas as the social services or criminal justice system. Nothing is ever as black-and-white or clear-cut as it seems, and the film sheds light on the poverty and incarceration issues that plague not just Milwaukee, but many other urban areas across the country. Milwaukee 53206’s focus on poverty and incarceration is just one example of countless other issues, such as working with immigrant populations or non-English speaking populations. As future lawyers who may someday serve these individuals, whether in the civil or criminal systems, we must be mindful of where these individuals are coming from and the things that have shaped their experiences. We must empathize with them and account for their experiences in the work that we do. That doesn't necessarily mean special treatment, but we need to seriously consider individual circumstances.” Travis Yang, 3L

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    Children & the Law Blog is published by the Children & the Law Section and the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Christie Christie and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Children & the Law Section or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

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