Village of East Troy municipal court program helps juveniles before it's too late

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Andrea Anderson
Sunday, April 27, 2014

EAST TROY—A 15-year-old boy surprised East Troy Municipal Judge Michael Cotter in January 2000.

The boy, in court on a charge of possessing marijuana, asked if Cotter took cash.

Then the teen's pager went off.

That's when Cotter knew.

“This kid, I look at him, and I'm like, wait, you're a drug dealer,” Cotter said. “I'm like, I don't believe this. Where am I? I don't believe this is happening.”

The 15-year-old went on to sexually assault a girl, was put on probation, sexually assaulted another girl a few years later and was sent to prison, Cotter said.

In 2000, Cotter set a personal goal to positively affect one child's life a year.

Last year he believes he made good on the promise to himself. He calculates he helped 28 juveniles with a screening program the Walworth County Department of Health and Human Services helped him develop, he said

County officials are now considering expanding it.

The program is the first of its kind in Wisconsin, Cotter said, and is meant to reach children when they're young and before they become “frequent flyers” in the judicial system.

Juveniles are in his court the second Wednesday of each month. Regardless of the citations, juveniles found guilty must make contact with a social worker.

The social worker explains screening that can lead to further assistance for the child or the child's family. Help can include intervention, family therapy or drug and alcohol treatment.

The parent or child can decline help and leave, or they can take the screening with one of the two social workers.

It takes 15 minutes, Cotter said, and it's working.

Cotter said he's had positive feedback from parents affected by the program. One parent said the program saved his family.

“They said, 'But if it wasn't for you, we never would have gone through our family therapy,'” Cotter said. “That right there, that's the win for me. I'm looking to impact one family, one kid a year. And I can honestly say in 2013 we did.”

In 2013, 81 citations were issued to 39 juveniles, and 28 agreed to screening.

Of those, three self-reported alcohol and drug issues, two families participated in family therapy, and five juveniles had brief interventions directly after the screenings, according to Cotter's records.

“Had we not had that program, none of those connections would have been made,” Cotter said.

Carlo Nevicosi, manager of the behavioral health services and crisis intervention program at the health department, helped develop the program and is applying for a grant to expand the screening to another Walworth County community.

“We think we've got something good here, although our sample size is pretty small with the village of East Troy,” Nevicosi said. “So we'd like to take a look simultaneously at the village of East Troy and add another municipality.”

The county is looking to expand it to Elkhorn with Municipal Judge Thomas Meyer. It could begin sometime this summer.

The grant totals $25,000 and would help offset the program's cost and pay for training.

The village of East Troy program is built into the health department's budget.

Nevicosi said the program is a preventative measure that's reaching people who weren't being reached. Typically, juveniles wouldn't get help until they were in trouble and appeared in circuit court.

“It's something we're very, very fond of, and I think it's something we're on to,” Nevicosi said.

Cotter has another goal. He wants to expand the program locally and eventually see it adopted by cities in larger counties, such as Dane or Milwaukee counties.

Looking back at the 15-year-old drug dealer in his court 14 years ago, Cotter believes the program might have changed the boy's life.

“To go back in time, had we had this program then, would this program have made a difference for that kid? Maybe, maybe not,” Cotter said. “But that is an example real life, true story.”

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