Conversation with Aluf Benn
Deadline: Ochberg Fellowship Application
Workshop: Reporting Safely from Crisis Zones
Panel: How to Freelance Safely
Remorse is a word, an emotion that George Mikos rarely sees in his young clients. Most come in for their weekly visit stone-faced, rarely initiating conversation while Mikos pries for possible probation violations or how school is going.
“It’s kind of a last chance for these kids to remain in this community.” Mikos said. “Either they make it with me or the are removed from the home and placed in foster care.”
Mikos, an intensive probation officer in the Cheboygan County probate system, carries a small caseload of children – usually less than 10 kids at a time. But these children keep Mikos extremely busy; most are repeat offenders, multiple first-time offenders or need individual attention.
Not every child that Mikos works with has committed a serious crime.
“I’ve had kids on my caseload for incorrigibility charges,” he said. “They just will not submit to the supervision of their parents.”
These cases are often in conjunction with a school complaint or misdemeanor charge.
“The fact that they appear on my caseload does not mean they are a severe criminal type,” he said.
“There’s a definite overlap between neglect, abuse and delinquency,” Mikos said. “You can just let your imagination go wild with what we find when we go into some of these homes.”
His caseloads have ranged from breaking and entering and larcenies to criminal sexual conduct and retail fraud. Some kids are in the probate system because of car theft.
The Cheboygan Probate Court has revamped its system over the past 10 years to accommodate an increasing number of legal offenses committed by children.
The restructuring of the local court is part of statewide mandated changes. The changes reflect a lack of parental guidance and understanding of boundaries, along with an increase in household violence.
In 1992 alone, 218 delinquency petitions filed in the Cheboygan Probate Court resulted in 267 charges against juveniles. Of those charges, 57 were felony offenses, including two cases of felonious assault, 13 accounted for misdemeanor assaults and 37 were for retail fraud.
Most children are referred to Mikos’ intensive probation program for a year or less, but the probation officer says that he has had some children on his caseload for as long as three years or as short as 90 days.
They are questioned each week about meeting curfew, if they have been sick, attendance in school and family life.
“We don’s accept their responses necessarily,” Mikos said, “We have to monitor them and see if they are telling the truth.
“Kids will do an amazing job of covering up what’s going on in the home,” he continued. “If they’ve grown up with the belief that what their parents do and say is normal and not different, they have to reach the age of reason where they can look at their friends and other families and make an assessment of their own parent.”
The biggest bridge for both the kids and Mikos to cross is one of trust.
“Once you establish a trust relationship with these kids and they start dumping on you - then what’s really going on in a family starts coming out in a kid – it can become overwhelming” he said. “Even for me.”
Since Joanna Neale started her position as a probate judge for Cheboygan County in 1983, she has watched a startling change in aggression within young children.
For a long time, juvenile court was considered “paternalistic,” more of a social function than a law-abiding system, Neale explained.
“In the last 10 years there have been major, massive rule changes in the juvenile law, juvenile code, juvenile courtrooms, that reflect what’s happening in society,” she said. “It’s reflecting the violence in society, the abuse of children, the deterioration of families.”
Neale is now seeing more behavioral problems than ever before. More and more children with disorders resulting from pre-natal substance abuse are appearing in her courtroom. A disturbing surge of hopelessness also has emerged among young offenders.
But some children still manage to surprise Neale.
Sometimes a child in the most horrible environment or that has been treated so malevolently will just be like a sparkling flower and emerge somehow,” she said.
It’s just absolutely amazing.
“We have children who are rejected by their mother and father and are raised in foster homes. There’s a marvelous achievement in a child that can surmount that anguish of being rejected by family and still become a functional youth.”
Juvenile court, which is a division of the probate court, has its own separate rules. The court is divided into two phases: delinquency under 17-years-old and the neglect and abuse jurisdiction.
All proceedings in the juvenile court are open to the public, except in cases of sexual abuse,” to illuminate children’s right in the judicial system,” Neale said.
“The question of violence is not relegated only to the child protection proceeding, but you’ll also see it emanating and rearing its head in the juvenile delinquency hearings,” she added.
Michael Grulke has worked as a juvenile officer in Cheboygan for 13 years. The children he works “tend to be good kids” who happened to get caught doing something illegal.
“I tend to keep the kids who are what we call regular probation,” Grulke said. “These are pretty good kids who have community services to do, letters of apology, restitution … they have more objectives to complete as opposed to behavior or attitude changes.”
At any given time, there are about 65 delinquents in the probate court; sometimes Grulke adds as many as eight new cases to his workload in one day. He also facilitates the entire legal process for the children, including the initial questioning once a child is brought in, formal inquiries, the judges decision on the case and sentencing.
The large amount of violence in our society contributes to children acting out, Neale said.
“We’re quite a violent society in many respects. The television, the media, the movies – all of it reinforces a physical reaction to the solving of problems,” she said. “Also, television and the emphasis on physical violence have subtle ways of demeaning families and using power.”
Children from violent homes have higher risks of alcohol/drug abuse and juvenile delinquency, according to information compiled by the National Woman Abuse Prevention Project. Approximately 90 percent of children are aware of the violence directed at their mother.
“The witnessing of violence is just as damaging to a child as being a participant in the violence,” Neale said. “If a child witnesses violence, sets them up possibly for generational violence themselves. Children look at that as the response to domestic problems when they are grown.
“Children who are intimidated and terrorized by the violence of a father against a mother, you can imagine the anguish and suffering they endure always making sure that the delicate balance of anger isn’t upset,” she said.
Not relegated to a particular socio- economic group, domestic violence affects all parts of society.
Although violence is often deeply hidden within a family structure, evidence is often found while the court is conducting a study in preparation of a disposition.
“We want the children to be accountable for what they’ve done, we want the community to be protected,” Neale said. “But beyond that, to change any behavior, we need to know why these things occur. What we find out often, what we become aware of, is the terrible inadequacies of their lives.”
Parental involvement is instrumental in the rehabilitation of children who appear in the juvenile court.
“We have parents who will not invest themselves,” Neale said. “And then sometimes the children themselves are remarkable, given a chance, in what they can accomplish. But very often they have not had much encouragement of nurturing or protection in their own lives.
Historically there were periods of time in Michigan when children would remain in foster care for years, but in the 1980s a movement toward permanency in families resulted in a new child placement process, Neale said.
“The thrust of the law in this state has been family reunification as the main goal,” she said. “Permanency is also a state goal for children so they do not languish in the foster care system.
“A child who is delinquent is often a child who should have been protected at one phase.”
Lack of boundaries within a child’s life is often reflective in destructive behavior. So in assessing the severity of a juvenile’s offence, Neale tries to make the child accountable.
“I would much rather live in a community that made the possibility of change available than one that only uses punishment when there is transgression,” Neale said. “Certainly in punishment, accountability has to be built into each juvenile case that we have. With juveniles, we try to have them give back to the community and it makes them feel much better.”
Measuring the success of children who go through the probate system is difficult for those who work in it every day. But sometimes, something as simple as a phone call can put everything into perspective.
“I don’t evaluate success on whether or not I see a kid go to jail when he turns 17,” said Mikos, the extensive probation officer. “It’s when I hear from him five, six, seven years later and he tells me for some reason he found it important to call me and tell me something about what’s going on in his life.
“Those times are few and far between, but they do happen. And, I guess, it’s one of the few ways that we might be serving a purpose.”
Increasing violence on school grounds inspired Cheboygan County Probate Judge Joanna Neale to initiate a program teaching children conflict resolution skills.
Together Learn Compromise (TLC), a seven-week class held in a group format, is a pilot program provided through the Probate Court, said Grayce Gusmano, the special services director for the Cheboygan County Probate Court.
Gusmano is affiliated with a Michigan State University extension program to do work with Judge Neale.
The social skills program, which targets several age groups within the Cheboygan and Wolverine school districts, promotes individual work with children aimed at helping youths to look at how they respond to peer pressure and decision making, Gusmano explained.
The TLC program also helps families with parenting skills while connecting youth and families with outside agencies for additional support or guidance.
Neale decided to start the program a year and a half ago when she noticed an increased amount of aggressive behavior by younger children in her courtroom. She then confirmed her impressions with school administrators.
A steering committee for the TLC program includes administrators from MSU and Cheboygan County schools, probate court employees, local family members and representatives from the Cheboygan Family Resource Center.
“As a result of these people coming together the probate court received a seed grant from the Institute for Children, Youth and Families, (located on the MSU campus) to look at the problem and establish the root of the aggressiveness, the extent of the problem and what can be done to address the problem,” Gusmano said.
The group determined the extent of the project needed in Cheboygan County and what solutions could be offered.
The steering committee’s research found an increased level of hostile behavior on the part of school children.
“We found that violent behavior within Cheboygan County isn’t as much of a problem as we see in urban areas downstate, but there was indeed an increase in aggressive behavior across the board,” Gusmano said. “Not just in dysfunctional families. Kids were exhibiting the use of hitting, biting and foul language to resolve conflict.”
Three areas came up in determining why the violent behavior occurred:
“This really made the steering committee realize there were some skills lacking,” Gusmano said. “The kids really need relationship building skills, skills to handle their internal conflicts and any conflicts generated by peer pressure or the external environment.”
The committee also recognized the need for skill building went beyond the at-risk students.
“Kids don’t grow up in a vacuum, they grow up in families, they grow up in communities and they are affected by schools,” she said. “We not only had to intervene in the life of the youth, but we had to do something for the lives of the families and the community at large.”
So the program included a component for families to teach them how to handle conflict at home, including discipline problems and learning how to fight fair.
Within West Side Elementary School, Principal Kay Tebo started a behavior reward program that recognizes students for good conduct. For instance, students who behave well may receive a token, such as a candy bar, as a reward.
While some students respond to the program positively, others find it difficult to stay in line.
“It’s almost because they haven’t had positive reinforcement before that they almost can’t deal with it,” said Tebo, who also serves on the TLC steering committee. “They’re not comfortable with the reward. They’re almost looking for someone to smack them up side of the head or do something in the way that they are used to people reacting to them.”
Your contributions help the Dart Center nurture informed, innovative and ethical news reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy worldwide.
The Dart Center is a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.