The police did not know how to support her. The 12-year-old had repeatedly abused her guardian and seemed to be in an endless cycle of getting arrested and then hospitalized. Time and time again, she faced the criminal justice system, only to be subsequently failed by it.
The staff at the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, one of the many outstanding organizations you are supporting through the Investing in Justice Campaign, quickly realized that her core issues were not being addressed. They fought within the school system, advocating that she be residentially placed. They argued that she was unfit to stand trial and could not be held responsible given her complex mental health issues. The court lacked the services to help her with these issues, so The Moran Center attorneys and social workers ensured she would receive these services from her school.
The Moran Center recognizes that when legal issues arise in their clients’ lives, they are generally not isolated incidents, but rather a result of many interrelated factors in their lives. This is why the Moran Center emphasizes a holistic approach to legal advocacy. Using a blend of legal and social work services, Moran Center staff tries to get to the root of every incident and find ways to fix both the client’s legal issues and the underlying social causes. Social workers provide outreach, case management, short-term crisis intervention, and individual, family, and group counseling. The staff follows the child and family even after legal services have been provided in order to ensure a successful trajectory. When the organization was founded over 40 years ago, the founders were trailblazers at the time, integrating therapeutic services into legal work was exceedingly rare.
One of the most defining moments in the Moran Center’s 40-year history was the decision to take on school law cases. Seven years ago, the then-Executive Director recognized that most of the children that the Center was representing in juvenile court were facing the court system as a result of some failure within the school setting. Many were caught in the school-to-prison pipeline. The Moran Center recognized the importance of approaching this from a preventative standpoint, and decided to start a school law practice within the agency.
Since incorporating this into their work, the Moran Center has been able to intervene within schools and keep children out of the criminal justice system. Executive Director Patrick Keenan-Devlin explains that this is the case because when children and young adults are assisted and provided with the appropriate services and resources at a young age, they are more likely to stay in school and out of jail, thereby avoiding the pipeline.
Nationally and locally, there is a growing movement to reform the criminal justice system, and it is an exciting time to be a criminal law practitioner. So many people are recognizing that the criminal justice system is broken and that we need to do more in terms of providing restorative and rehabilitative care, says Patrick. Unfortunately, the ongoing budget stalemate in Springfield has made the practice of school law more daunting. School systems are under financial hardship and resources are tight, says Patrick, and schools need resources to be an active player in keeping children out of the school-to-prison pipeline.
Currently, the Moran Center is working to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to come more into line with developing neuroscience. Why is it that courts stop being rehabilitative at a child’s 18th birthday when scientists are telling us that individuals in their late teens and early twenties are not all that different from 17 year-olds?
In addition to providing legal and social work services, the Moran Center focuses on a number of other initiatives. The organization has an Expungement and Sealing Help Desk at the Skokie Courthouse, where attorneys provide expungement and sealing services to increase education, employment and housing opportunities for clients of all ages. The Moran Center has also partnered with its local community to create the City of Evanston Diversion Program, where Evanston youth who have been cited with minor city ordinance violations can receive counseling sessions as well as assistance in completing community service in lieu of a fine.
As the only legal aid organization in the North Suburban area that provides legal assistance to clients in the areas of expungement and sealing, school discipline, and special education, the Moran Center has very close ties to the local Evanston community. Patrick says that at least two nights a week, a Moran Center staff member can be found talking to Evanston residents about their rights and about the organization’s programs.
Project Bridges, a new initiative with the Evanston Police Department (EPD) will be launching in February 2017. The EPD currently has police officers in the Children’s Law & Policy Program at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, where they are learning about restorative justice practices. The EPD reached out to the Moran Center to launch a program where 20 police officers and 20 youth who have had contact with law enforcement will come together for community engagement exercises. Police officers will undergo trauma training, a poverty simulation, implicit bias training, and a number of other exercises. Patrick believes that this will ultimately help establish a better relationship between law enforcement and the community that they police.
Many people have the wrong perception about the children and young adults the Moran Center represents. People think that they’re bad’, but Patrick claims that he has yet to meet a bad kid. All of his clients want to do well and want to please. He explains that they all have dreams and aspirations, yet they are often judged by their worst acts. For Patrick, the greatest challenge of doing this work is convincing community members that these kids are worth investing in, and that they are worth a second chance.