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  • April 26, 2021

    Countering the Child Welfare to Juvenile Delinquency to Adult Prison Pipeline

    Abigail Hean discusses the “child welfare to juvenile justice to adult prison pipeline” – the failure of these systems to adequately address the needs of the youth they serve, ultimately causing more harm than good.

    Abigail Hean

    broken chain into a bird

    As a circuit court judge in the Dane County juvenile division for the last five years, Judge Everett Mitchell has seen many children come through his courtroom as victims of abuse and neglect, as juveniles accused of delinquency, and later as adults accused of a crime.

    Now, as the presiding judge of the juvenile division, he wants to address systemic issues he witnesses, including the “child welfare to juvenile delinquency to adult prison pipeline,” as he calls it.

    The Pipeline

    Advocates in these systems are likely familiar with the school-to-prison pipeline, but Judge Mitchell points out that many of the juveniles he sees are not actually spending time in school because of Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that allow for a shortened schedule, suspensions and expulsion, or placement in juvenile detention or residential treatment. However, the result of both pipelines is the same: kids are falling through the cracks.

    Abigail Hean Abigail Hean, U.W. Law School Class of 2021, is the student liaison to the Children and the Law Section Board and has been a member of the U.W. Law Schools’s Children’s Justice, Family Law, and Public Defender projects.

    The child welfare to juvenile delinquency to adult prison pipeline is often referred to as the foster-care-to-prison pipeline or sometimes the abuse-to-prison pipeline, both of which hide the true nature of the issue: that there are three separate systems designed to address and resolve the issues that these young individuals face. And yet, they are each failing.

    Additionally, although placement in foster care and sexual abuse are strongly linked to later involvement in the juvenile and adult prison systems, all forms of abuse and neglect, regardless of whether the child is placed in foster care, can increase the risk of involvement with these systems.

    The Child Welfare System

    According to Judge Mitchell, one of the primary issues with the child welfare system is the mentality of “removal first, then maybe services.” He says the issues of abuse and neglect are often caused by generational issues of incarceration, poverty, and trauma. When these families do not receive the support they need to stay together, they are further traumatized, and their children are left to fend for themselves.

    Another issue that Judge Mitchell noticed is the inability of the various child welfare players to work together. Because lawyers are often not involved until a CHIPS petition is filed, they have to rely on the information that social workers have documented. Throughout a case, they must also communicate and act as a team, even when there are competing interests. This is one of the reasons Judge Mitchell created a joint course for U.W. law students and social work students to learn about the child welfare and juvenile delinquency systems together.

    The Juvenile Delinquency System

    The overlap between the juvenile delinquency and child welfare systems is not a new issue. In fact, there is a term for the young people who become involved with the juvenile system after having been victims of abuse or neglect: crossover youth or dual-status youth.

    National studies have found that over 90% of youth in the juvenile system have experienced some form of trauma, and in one Wisconsin county, 64% of juveniles with open delinquency cases had previously been involved with the child welfare system.

    Judge Mitchell believes that the biggest issue in the juvenile delinquency system is the overuse of incarceration and other sanctions. He tells the story of a social worker who wanted to send a child to detention because the child swore at the worker. In his opinion, there are things “that kids do,” that don’t necessitate the use of confinement. Often, there are cultural gaps that can explain the behavior that leads to sanctions. He points out that that research actually shows confinement creates worse outcomes for children, and “when there is no statistical justification, it is just oppression.”

    The Adult Prison System

    Although the juvenile delinquency system is designed “to equip juvenile offenders to live responsibly and productively,” far too many of the youth who enter as juveniles end up in the adult prison system. As Judge Mitchell says, “emotional outbursts become disorderly conduct.”

    By the time a child has been charged as an adult, the effects are nearly irreversible. Unlike a juvenile delinquency adjudication, adult criminal charges can follow the individual for the rest of their life, even if there is no conviction.

    The adult prison system also differs from the other systems in that the services that are established to support children and juveniles are no longer available. In Wisconsin, these services typically end when the child turns 18, but can sometimes go until age 21. And even when a child is charged and convicted as an adult, the system does not have the same services to offer.

    System-wide Reform Is Needed

    Because of the interactions between each of these systems, we cannot consider reform of one without also considering the impact of and on the others. In the midst of statewide discussions about juvenile justice and overall criminal justice reform, advocates and lawmakers must remember the role that the abuse, neglect, and underlying trauma play in these cases.

    Even absent systemic change, Judge Mitchell believes there is room for change in individual decision making. Two of the changes he has tried to make since joining the bench are trauma-informed decision making and acknowledgment of the dignity of the children and families he serves.

    Trauma-Informed Decision Making

    Research shows that trauma can have lasting, physical and emotional effects on the body and brain. Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, which include things like household violence, abuse and neglect, and parental incarceration, are common among individuals in the systems that contribute to this pipeline, and there has been a recent push for trauma-informed care and decision making in all areas of law. Unfortunately, Judge Mitchell has noted that this seems to be in tension with other aspects of our systems, namely the focus on accountability.

    Dignity of Those Served

    Above all else, Judge Mitchell strives to acknowledge the dignity of the individual children and families that he serves. In his role as a juvenile court judge, he has removed shackles from the children who appear before him, ensured that youth at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools receive haircuts from licensed barbers, and fought for mental health care providers of color for the children and parents of color who are ordered to use those services. For others who are or want to become public servants, he suggests “accepting the public as it is,” instead of enforcing closed-minded ideals.

    Judge Everett Mitchell at podium

    Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell gave the keynote address at the State Bar of Wisconsin G. Lane Ware Leadership Academy in April 2019.

    Leading the Change: Judge Everett Mitchell

    In addition to his role as a juvenile court judge, the Honorable Reverend Mitchell serves as an adjunct professor at the U.W. Law School and pastor at the Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Madison.

    Before he was elected to the bench, Judge Mitchell worked as the director of community relations for UW-Madison. He received his law degree from U.W. Law School, and has master’s degrees in divinity and theology from Princeton and bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and religion from Morehouse College.

    In 2019, the Wisconsin Public Radio Station featured a video about one of Judge Mitchell’s cases as part of a documentary on adverse childhood experiences called Not Enough Apologies: Trauma Stories.

    For more information, check out these other Children & the Law Section Blogs on related topics:

    For more information on Judge Mitchell, see:

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Children & the Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Children & the Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.

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