By SOPHIA BRANDT
Capital News Service
LANSING – Experts say the state’s juvenile justice system has been neglected for years, worsening a shortage of beds at residential facilities, particularly in Northeast Michigan.
The Michigan Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform called the situation a crisis in its 2022 report.
The task force was established by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to assess the juvenile justice system and come up with solutions to address problems.
A shortage of beds and a lack of sufficient residential treatment facilities are the biggest problems facing the state system, said Samantha Gibson, a government affairs associate at the Michigan Association of Counties.
Michigan increased the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include 17-year-olds in 2019 but didn’t add beds to accommodate the influx of more teens into the system, a number of advocacy groups wrote in a letter to Whitmer and Director of Health and Human Services Elizabeth Hertel.
The groups, including the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, Mental Health Association, Association of Counties, explains that the change, which went into effect in 2021, along with the closing of facilities and low staff pay have contributed to the bed shortage.
Gibson said the absence of residential facilities in the northern Lower Peninsula leaves kids from the area in a difficult situation.
They are either sent to a facility farther away, or if a Michigan facility has no room, they are placed out of state. Either way, that makes visitation by relatives difficult or rare, and puts the children in an unfamiliar setting.
The risk of committing new crimes or ending up in the adult prison system at an older age becomes higher with the lack of parental visitation, Gibson said.
The state and its juvenile justice system encourage parents and guardians to be involved when their child is in a facility, but that’s nearly impossible if the child is moved out of state, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
The center, based in New York City, says, “Youth in the juvenile justice system need their families to be centered and engaged in their experience in order to promote positive outcomes.”
Michigan has two state-operated juvenile residential facilities; the Shawono Center in Grayling and the Bay Pines Center in Escanaba.
Bay Pines can house 45 boys and girls, and the Shawono Center can hold 40 boys. That means fewer than 100 kids at a time between the two facilities.
Michigan has 25 county or court-operated juvenile detention facilities, according to a 2020 report from Wayne State University.
None are in Northeast Michigan.
Between the two state-operated facilities and the other 25, there still isn’t enough capacity to meet the high demand to serve kids in the system.
Unfortunately, there is an overlap between the lack of beds in the facilities and the lack of beds in the foster care system, Gibson said.
Many kids end up in foster care after going through the rehabilitation process at a facility, but with the shortage of foster beds, they can’t be placed in foster homes.
The Association of Counties is pushing the state to increase the per diem payment to foster parents to encourage more people to take on such a responsibility and increase the number of available homes.
According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 10,000 kids are in foster care in the state, and another 200 need an adoptive family.
With only 5,109 foster homes available, there isn’t nearly enough room for them, according to a research report in the Imprint, a publication of the nonprofit Fostering Media Connection based in Los Angeles.
Foster homes combined with juvenile justice facilities still leave thousands of children without a place to stay in the state.
The counties group’s 2023 priority list includes increasing resources for the juvenile justice system.
Legislation to do that is expected to be introduced by late March, Gibson said.
It will include funding increases for wages for social workers and other employees in the facilities and more money to possibly add facilities and boost per diems for foster parents, as well as an overall hike in spending on the juvenile justice system, Gibson explains.
Approval of the proposal will be a long process, Gibson said. “These things take time. You cannot reform a system overnight,”
There is hope, she said, that the proposal will go through the legislative process and be signed by Whitmer by the end of the year.
The letter to Whitmer and Hertel of Health and Human Services said, “The crisis has reached a point where court/county operated (short-term) detention facilities are housing youth for months and months, as opposed to days and weeks as they were meant to do.
When kids who can’t return to their own families have finished rehabilitation, they have to stay in these facilities longer, taking up beds for an extended period of time, the letter explained.
Gibson said, the kids “deserve access to these facilities. It just comes down to how to pay for it.”