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Tuesday, August 22, 2006
These Are Our Children, editorial by Joseph Wall, Childrens Court Judge
By nsbyrer @ 3:44 PM :: 13750 Views :: Article Rating :: Advocacy
This article was written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The link below the first section takes you to the JSOnline web site where you can read and forward the story to others. While Judge Wall writes about Milwaukee, he could be writing about Chicago, Detroit, New York or an other major city in America.

I am a Children's Court judge in Milwaukee County, and I have seen the future. He is a 14-year-old boy, and although he is a composite, he is known and familiar to all of us here. I am about to sentence him for his third felony offense in two years.

Poverty: The RealitiesI have never seen a child from a middle-class background enter foster care. Almost without exception, these children are the products of extremely poor families. No child from wealth or privilege ever encounters the full force of the foster care system. I have never seen a petition for termination of parental rights filed against a parent of means. only the poor have their parental rights terminated Finally, the overwhelming majority of children in the delinquency system come from the poverty rolls. Link to JSOnline:

His father is in prison. His mother is a drug addict and convicted prostitute. I have no idea where she is. At his sentencing, there will be no family member in court to support him or speak in his behalf. No father, no mother, no uncle, no grandparent will appear. This young man is full of rage and anger. He doesn't know why. He doesn't go to school - no one tells him to. He has no guidance, no role models and no direction. He feels no love. He has no hope. Also, frighteningly, because he has nothing, he no longer has anything to lose. His older brother, now 19, is in prison serving a 40-year sentence for second-degree intentional homicide - a street robbery gone awry. His 16-year-old sister has been in a juvenile corrections facility - a prison for kids - since she was 14 for battering a classmate over the affections of an older boy. Because she cannot follow the rules of the correctional facility, she will likely remain incarcerated there until her 18th birthday.

This young man I will sentence has a 7-year-old brother. I know a bit about him. He's happy and smiles all the time. He loves his friends and loves playing outside. He is full of hope. For him, the world is one of infinite possibilities. He has no idea of what's to come.

My professional education has been a bit backward. For 17 years, I was a state and federal prosecutor pursuing adults who committed crimes. For time, I specialized in drug cases. My cases then were often the result of something that occurred much earlier. Now, as a children's court judge, I see how those cases began and why, I fear, they will continue into the foreseeable future.

In Milwaukee County, Children's Court judges hear a variety of cases involving children, but there are three main categories.

The first category is juvenile delinquency cases. These cases concern children who have committed crimes. If the child is convicted, a judge can sentence him or her to a term of probation, a term of probation with a stayed period in corrections or straight corrections, the children's prison. Corrections orders can be up to two years but are renewable until a child reaches 18. At that point, of course, the child is eligible for the adult criminal justice system.

The second category is foster care cases. These are cases in which children have been abused, abandoned or neglected by their parents. These children enter the foster care system and, if families are available, are placed in a foster home. If families are not available, the children are placed in shelters or group homes. Children can remain in foster care until a parent corrects the problems that led to the child's removal from the home or until the childen are 18, whichever comes sooner.

The third category is termination of parental rights cases. In cases in which the parent is unlikely to remedy their problems and a foster family is willing to adopt the child, the state can file a petition to terminate the mother's and father's parental rights. If the parents' rights are terminated, the child will be adopted, and the parent has no right to ever see the child again.

The three types of cases I just outlined share a common thread: poverty. I cannot describe my job without talking about poverty and its dreadful impact on our children. I have never seen a child from a middle-class background enter foster care. Almost without exception, these children are the products of extremely poor families.

No child from wealth or privilege ever encounters the full force of the foster care system. I have never seen a petition for termination of parental rights filed against a parent of means. only the poor have their parental rights terminated. Finally, the overwhelming majority of children in the delinquency system come from the poverty rolls. In only the rarest of circumstances will a child of wealth or privilege see the inside of a corrections facility.

Bear with me a moment, and consider the following harsh, but well-established, facts about our community: A 2003 Census Bureau report shows that the poverty rate in Milwaukee rose by 14% in 2002. Last year, 125,000 Milwaukee residents lived under the federal poverty limit, an increase of 16,000 from the year before. Those numbers translate into roughly 22% of our city's residents. A 2003 study by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families found that in 2002, more than 54,000 Milwaukee children under 18, or 34.4% of all children in the city, were living in poverty. The study showed that African-American children were six times more likely to live in poverty than white children. That same study showed stark racial differences in child poverty: The statewide poverty rate in 2000 for white children was 6.9%; for African-American children, the rate was 41.7%. The study determined that almost one-fourth of Hispanic, American Indian and Asian children lived in poverty in 2000.

This past year, and for more than a decade, Wisconsin has ranked last in the country in percentage of children who receive a school breakfast. Studies show that when schools serve breakfasts, a child's attendance, classroom behavior and academic performance improve.

A 2003 study released by Harvard University's Civil Rights Project shows that Wisconsin ranks 10th in the extent of segregation in its schools for African-American students. The same study showed that Milwaukee posted the second-largest increase of African-American students in the district over the last 20 years. For the past two years, Wisconsin has ranked last in the nation in high school graduation rates for African-American students. The study, by the Manhattan Institute, showed a 41% graduation rate for African-American students compared with an 87% rate for white students. According to that same study, for the third straight year, Wisconsin leads the nation in failing African-American students.

In a 2003 study, the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that among the 50 largest cities in the country, Milwaukee ranks sixth in its percentage of teen births.

This year, African-Americans were 4.79 times more likely than whites to be turned down for mortgages. This is the second year in a row Milwaukee led the nation, according to a 2003 study of 115 metropolitan areas just released by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. And, despite alternate interpretations, the most recent census study shows that Milwaukee remains one of the most segregated cities in the country. In Milwaukee there are not only neighborhoods, but square-mile swaths of city blocks of people living in abject poverty. Walk through the north side, if you dare. You will observe living conditions that are shamed by that of some Third World countries. This is our city.

These are our neighbors. These are our children. Shame on us. Consider again my 14-year-old. A large portion of the generation above him is lost. Right now, we are losing his generation to the same cycle. Some of the younger children in the delinquency and foster care system who can envision a future will, when asked, tell me they want to be doctors, teachers, nurses and lawyers. They just don't know the path. Nor do they realize that unless there is a dramatic change in their lives, they don't have a chance at any of those careers. It's shocking to see such a lack of resources and, consequently for judges, a lack of options for these children of poverty.

It appears at times that we, as a community, as a society, have given up on the futures of these children. We are content to pay for their placement in foster care or shelters, and when that fails, we are content to pay for beds in a corrections facility or, eventually, a prison. And when we lack beds in our prisons, we dont grumble about building more prisons. I have never seen a taxpayer revolt over the building of additional prisons.

What we seem unprepared to do, though, is spend the money on them on the front end - by making sure they have the finest education available; by ensuring that they have a safe and comfortable school environment, one they want to participate in; by ensuring their facilities are up-to-date; and by ensuring that after school and on the weekends, they have safe and comfortable surroundings to which they can turn for recreation, training, companionship, mentoring and learning.

If families are failing, and they are, we, the community, need to assume a larger role in the everyday lives of these children. They are, at the end of the day, our children. It is, partially, an issue of race and the effects of longstanding institutional discrimination. More accurately, though, it is simply a question of economics - the fiscal impact of poverty.

Until we seriously address the cycle of poverty, we cannot address its consequences - drug abuse, mental illness, child abuse and neglect, and especially crime, always crime. Until we address the cycle of poverty, we cannot address the cycle of crime.

Few things in court are as sobering as a foster care hearing in which both a father and his teenage son are in secure custody. Recently, I heard a public figure decry 4-year-old kindergarten as "taxpayer-subsidized day care." I thought to myself: We don't need 4-year-old kindergarten; we need 3-year-old kindergarten, staffed with energetic, well-trained, appropriately compensated and highly motivated teachers who will begin to teach these children before they even start school. We need to get these children of poverty out of their environments, which are too often unsafe and unhealthy, and place them in vibrant centers of learning and training. We need to make a massive investment in our schools and in our teachers. We must pay our teachers well and make teaching attractive - why do most of the best students go into engineering or to law school or to medical school and not go on to educate our children? Is teaching our children any less important than the work of these professions?

We must make a massive investment in after-school and weekend programming for children in our cities. We must support the existing Boys and Girls Clubs and strive to create more such facilities and programs. We must attract mentors and educators to these programs - people who can teach our children and teens how to use a computer, how to write a clear and persuasive paragraph, how to balance a checkbook and then the books of a company, how to build cabinets, install plumbing in a new home or wire it for electricity and fix any car that limps into the garage. The Safe and Sound program is a wonderful example of after-school mentoring. We need to make a larger investment in these programs.

Who will pay for all this, you ask? You will. And I will. We should pay for it because it is the right thing, the moral thing, to do. But we must pay for it because it is the fiscally responsible thing to do. That is, we can pay for it now, tomorrow or in 10 years. But we will pay for it, and the sooner we do, the less expensive it will be.

Compare the cost to our community of a child who enters foster care at a young age to the contribution to our community of a child who is well cared for and well-educated, who then uses his stability, education, training and experience to become a businessman who trains and employs others. The cost of not making this investment in our children is staggering.

Calculate, if you can, the cost of poverty and crime. Every working day, all day, eight judges work at Children's Court in Milwaukee. Consider a one-hour foster care hearing for an abused or neglected child. An attorney represents each child, and when there are multiple children, they often have their own separate attorneys. The children have an assigned state social worker, or two. An assistant district attorney attends the hearing. If the parents appear, each receives appointed counsel. If a parent is incarcerated, and often one or both are, they must be transported by armed sheriff's deputies back and forth from prison for every court appearance. Often, doctors, psychologists and other treatment professionals attend the court hearings. We frequently see additional community-based social workers who are appointed to assist the children. one or sometimes two sheriff's deputies, a clerk, a court reporter and a judge staff the court itself. Multiply this situation by hundreds of times a week, thousands of times a year. Add to the expense of all this the tangible and intangible costs to the community from the impact of crime. Then, add payments to foster parents (from $450 to more than $800 a month for each child), the cost of probation agents (more than $5 million a year) and the cost of our juvenile correction facilities (currently $68,255 a year for each child). Finally, consider the cost to society if these children turn to crime as adults, as many of them do.

Who pays for all this now? You do. And I do. In the past few years, we have spent more than $600 million to build one sports stadium and to renovate another. We have spent more than $100 million to create an addition to our art museum, and we will see another $30 million investment in a new maritime facility. I'm not quarreling with these expenditures, but instead enumerate them for context.

At its core, poverty is a moral issue. But, just as compelling, it is an economic issue with long-term financial consequences for our community. Almost 40 years ago, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy spoke of poverty, saying: "Of all our problems, the most immediate and pressing, the one that threatens to paralyze our capacity to act, to obliterate our vision of the future, is the plight of (the urban poor), and the violence that has exploded as its product - jumping and spreading across the country, sending fear and anger before it, leaving death and devastation behind. We are now, as we may well be for some time to come, in the midst of what is rapidly becoming the most terrible and urgent domestic crisis to face this nation since the Civil War. Its consequences reach into every home, bringing the sure knowledge that failure to deal with this problem could mean failure in dealing with all the other elements of our urban crisis."

In the 40 years since, we have lost the generation Kennedy spoke about, and the two generations following. Right now, we are losing to poverty the grandchildren of that generation.

I don't envy our governor and his task of balancing the state budget. I don't envy our county executive and his efforts to reassemble and then balance the county budget. And I don't envy our mayor and his work in balancing the city budget. I'm not trained in their difficult business, and I'm inadequately qualified to advise them or in any way criticize them.

But be clear that when we hear, and feel seduced by, the terms "tax cuts" or "tax freeze," we must think instead "service cuts" and "program cuts." And realize that the programs that will be cut are the ones meant to benefit the poorest, the neediest, the youngest and the oldest, and the most disabled and weak of our community.

In the end, our children of poverty will suffer the most. Understand the consequences of these program and service cuts - today and tomorrow, but especially in 10 years when those to whom we have turned our collar and denied opportunities begin making their own opportunities, outside of society and outside of the law. We will pay then, not dollars for school breakfast and lunch programs, not hundreds of dollars for new books and computers, not thousands of dollars for additional teachers, more mentors and newer facilities, but for each forgotten and discarded soul and the cost he or she inflicts on society, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars in tangible costs and an equal measure, or greater, in intangible costs. And, following all that, we will face yet another lost generation.

Joseph R. Wall is a circuit judge assigned to Milwaukee County Children's Court. He is also a certified public accountant. This article is adapted from an address Wall gave o­n Oct. 14 at the 10th annual Forum on Youth Violence. From the Nov. 2, 2003 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Note: The Tutor/Mentor Connection does not need to author powerful stories with compelling reasons for people to become involved with programs that help inner city kids. We just need to find ways to recirculate these stories to a wider audience so that they motivate more people to become involved.

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