Intervention, not incarceration

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Ian Gronau | June 24, 2014

EAST TROY — Municipal Judge Michael Cotter started his career in East Troy in January 2000, and ever since then he's kept a watchful eye on the impact he was having on the juveniles that passed through his courtroom.

Since January 2013, Cotter has worked closely with the Walworth County Department of Health and Human Services to provide juveniles who go through his court with additional services to prevent them from re-entering the juvenile justice system.

After the first year, Cotter says the results have been promising, and DHHS officials say they plan to expand the program to Elkhorn.

Prior to implementing the new program, juveniles were rarely referred to DHHS for intervention.

“From January 2000 to January 2012, I referred four individual juveniles to health and human services,” Cotter said. “I kept track. All those kids committed crimes later on, and two of them received prison time. I saw hundreds of kids over those 12 years, but the part that changed it for me was during the short span between January 2012 and May 2012, I referred five more kids to HHS. It felt suddenly like I was really losing the battle.”

As Cotter reached out, he found support and interest in the East Troy Community School District, the East Troy Police Department and especially with the Walworth County Circuit Court judges.

But with DHHS, he found a partner that could help juveniles early on.

“We had been looking to do something a bit more preventative. A lot of our services here, at least in behavioral health and crisis intervention, are reactive,” said Carlo Nevicosi, manager of behavioral health and crisis intervention services with DHHS. “Something bad happens and then we get involved. We thought it'd be a good idea to try to reach these kids earlier in their offense cycle.”

DHHS worked with Cotter to provide a screening and evaluation program that would offer juveniles just leaving court a chance to participate in the services DHHS supplies.

“Any juvenile I get in my docket — could be a sixth-grader for a truancy or a sophomore in high school for a marijuana possession — whatever it is, they all see me,” Cotter said. “After disposing of their case, if they're found guilty, then I talk to them about whatever penalty I am assigning.”

In the past, defendants would simply leave after that, but in the new program, juveniles meet with one of two specially trained social workers from DHHS that are in court specifically for that purpose.

The social workers explain what they can offer, and individuals and their family can decide if they want to participate in the program.

“They get a series of questions that are part of evidence-based screening tools,” Cotter said. “The social workers are trained to gather clues from the answers to those questions about substance abuse and also psychological and anger issues.”

Cotter has been pleased with results so far.

In 2013 the court saw 39 juveniles to which 81 citations were issued. Of the group, 28 chose to participate in the screening. (Five juveniles or their parents refused, six cases went to a trial).

But the numbers Cotter is excited about are the three cases that self-reported alcohol and drug issues, the five young people who received brief interventions and the two families that agreed to participate in functional family therapy.

“One of the best parts of this program is that it's evidence based, and that means we keep statistics and are able to track what we are doing,” Cotter said. “For me, these numbers are big wins. If we didn't have the program those connections wouldn't have been made. I'm realistic. I don't expect that we're going to save the world with this, but if we can impact at least one kid a year, it has been a success.” 

Cotter has compiled the data from his first year and submitted several grant proposals in hopes to mitigate some of the costs absorbed by DHHS.

And according to Nevicosi, DHHS is going to expand the program to Elkhorn as well — regardless of whether or not an additional grant is obtained.

“I think we do need to look at a bigger site and get a larger sample set to really measure what impact it's having,” Nevicosi said. “I look forward to the coming year where we will continue to work with Judge Cotter, but also with the city of Elkhorn's municipal court.”

Cotter said he believes in the program and hopes that in the coming years it will not only accumulate more data from which to judge its efficacy, but also gain support regionally and find its way into communities that stand to gain from it.

“My hope is that we start getting traction with the idea,” Cotter said. “I am hoping that a state representative picks up on it and says, 'Let's fund this on a bigger level,' and they send it to Rock County, Janesville and Beloit — or Milwaukee County, somewhere where there is a higher volume of kids because I am convinced that this works.”

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