Kids in Crisis: Shortage spurred by 'Raise the Age'

Oct. 9—TRAVERSE CITY — Every time Grand Traverse Family Court adds a new case, Court Administrator Kristyn Brendel said she gets a sinking feeling in her gut — especially if juveniles are involved who need to be placed in a detention facility.

Two simple questions need to be answered immediately, Brendel said: Where will they go? And when?

But in Michigan, particularly in the northern Lower Peninsula, the answers to those simple questions aren't so simple. That's because there aren't enough places to accommodate the number of kids coming in to the juvenile justice system.

These young people are being sent to a mental health treatment facility or a detention center because they are deemed a danger to themselves or their community, she said. The primary goal is to rehabilitate them and keep them close to their community, parents and friends.

It's not like the adult court system and, last year, a major shake-up took place to ensure that the adult and juvenile detention systems don't mix.

According to Brendel, the beginning of the juvenile detention bed shortage crisis started with the passing of the "Raise the Age" legislation in Michigan, on Oct. 1, 2021.

The legislation was part of a national movement for all 50 states to increase the age at which a juvenile can be tried in the court as an adult to the age of majority for everything else in the United States: 18.

In Michigan, before that new law was passed, 17-year-olds were considered adults in the eyes of the court system. That meant, prior to the new law, 17-year-olds could be housed in adult prisons and jails.

But, when the clock struck midnight on Oct. 1, 2021, the new law took effect.

Brendel said the system in Michigan was not ready for it.

Suddenly, all of the 17-year-olds sitting in adult jails immediately needed someplace else to go, flooding family courts across the state.

"It was kind of like a statewide panic to get these kids out of jail," Brendel said. "They [the juvenile detention facilities] didn't have room for all the kids. It wasn't really planned for."

Grand Traverse County had one 17-year-old in jail when "Raise the Age" took effect, Brendel recalled. They sent the juvenile home to be placed on a tether, which is an at-home monitoring device.

"But, I don't know what we would've done for more," she said. "Because there were no beds available for our kids."

A year later, they are still grappling with that shortage of detention center beds.

Brendel's problems are not unique. Virtually every county in the state has faced a lack of available placements for juveniles. However, in rural northern Michigan, the distance between communities and lack of resources make the problem even worse.

For Cameron Clark, family court administrator in Leelanau County, the need to find places for juveniles is just as challenging.

"We get on the phone and we start calling, and usually to no avail," Clark said. "It's a scary time. One of our tasks is to make sure that kids are safe, and that the community is safe. When you cannot guarantee that, it's very unsettling."

Further complicating the requirement to keep 17-year-olds out of adult facilities, a "sight and sound" law prohibits juveniles from being within eyesight or earshot of adult inmates, in compliance with state and federal law.

In July, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed House Bill 4887, which would have allowed juveniles to be transported to detention centers in the same vehicles as adults. She cited the federal "sight and sound" law as the primary reason why she vetoed that bill.

After a school safety threat last June at Northwest Education Services, in which a male juvenile was identified as the main suspect, Brendel said that youth was viewed as a threat to others.

He had to be held, she said, but he had to be kept out of the sight and sound of adult inmates at the Grand Traverse County Jail until they could secure a placement option for him. Brendel and the captain of the jail were unable to comment on what happened with him, since it is an open juvenile case.

Sometimes, Brendel said, kids who end up locked in detention have to be moved outside of the state to find the proper treatment bed. Currently, three juveniles from Grand Traverse County are being held out of state — two in Wisconsin and one in Arkansas.

Family court also is charged with helping children get the mental health help they need.

So, if children try to harm themselves, since there are no youth emergency mental health beds for suicide ideation at Munson Medical Center, they would fall under her office's care, Brendel said.

Since Clark has fewer juvenile cases than Brendel, the backlog is not the same.

But both Clark and Brendel are members of the same statewide mailing list of detention centers.

Every time a new case file involving a juvenile comes to their desks, they send an email to that list asking the same question that family court administrators, judges, lawyers and family members are asking:

Are there any beds left?

The answer, more often than not, they said, is no.

Hear an audio version of this story and others on Interlochen Public Radio.

Read more about the problems with Michigan's juvenile justice system and what's being done to address them in next Sunday's Record-Eagle.

If you have an experience with the juvenile justice system you would like to share please contact reporters Elizabeth Brewer (ebrewer@record-eagle.com) and Michael Livingston (michael.livingston@interlochen.org).