Boys Town and Muskegon County Family Court celebrate their 25-year relationship


Recognize the Honorable Neil G. Mullally's commitment to helping Muskegon County youth offenders

By Diana L. Coleman
Legal News
Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska and the Muskegon County Family Court have maintained an active and productive relationship for the past 25 years. The goal and hope is to place local children who meet the requirements at Boys Town (BT) and give them an opportunity to grow academically and personally and move out of the judicial system into a successful adult life.

One of Father Flanagan’s many quotes: “When parents fail to do their job, when they allow their children to run the streets and keep bad company, when they fail to provide them with good examples in the home, then the parents and not the children are delinquent.” 

When traveling to Omaha to BT for graduation this Spring, Judge Mullally was accompanied by his wife, Diane, Juvenile Probation Supervisor Tom Cartwright, Probation Officers Holly Liefer and Carmelita Coleman,  and Muskegon County Circuit Court Administrator, Family Court Administrator,  and Friend of the Court Eric Stevens. It was not unusual for a Muskegon court representation to attend the annual commencement ceremonies and encourage the Muskegon students. This year the group was traveling to BT for the 2016 graduation of Muskegon student Paris Hodges. While the Muskegon group was aware that the judge was to be honored, it was a total surprise to Judge Mullally when Dr. Dan Daly, Executive Vice President of Youth Care of BT, presented Mullally with an Honorary Citizenship at BT.  The award reads:

“Boys Town 2016 Honorary Citizen. Honorable Neil G. Mullally. In recognition of your commitment, support, and inspiration to the Boys Town Mission, The Honorable Neil G. Mullally is hereby proclaimed an honorary citizen of Boys Town this fourteenth day of May, 2016. Thank you for the opportunity to provide services for the youth and families from the Muskegon community to enable success and hope for a brighter future.” 
When Neil G. Mullally assumed the Muskegon County Probate bench in 1986, there was a lot of juvenile crime in the county and he has spent his 30-year judicial career trying to provide brighter futures for the county’s youth. “Probate Juvenile Court Judge Tom Linck and I were looking for a place we thought would be best to place juvenile offenders,” said Mullally. “A core group of these juvenile offenders had no home life and basically lived on the streets and when on the streets, it naturally seems to lead to the commission of crimes. We just did not have the facilities needed to accommodate our county’s young offenders.”

“In the 1960s, BT reinvented itself. It brought in top educators and professionals and created a family teaching model,” said Mullally. “Staffers at BT come from all walks of life and 4-6 boys or girls [separated] are placed with staff members and they then live together in a home setting as a family. They are taught family values, for lack of a better term. They live in the home with the staff family and have tasks to do at home and personal tasks, class and homework, and assigned responsibilities.”

“Each student carries a card with them at all times and if they do something well, staff notates that on their card. If they mess up, the coach or teacher gives them a demerit. The kids are incentivized by good notations and try to avoid demerit. They may look a little nervous when a teacher or coach asks them for their card—not being quite sure if it is a good or bad thing,” said Mullally.  

They can stay at BT and attend elementary, middle, and high school on the 900-acre campus. They can learn farming, technology, and mechanics, learn a trade or vocation, and there are athletics and college prep programs. Some go on to college or military. BT has an 80-85% success rate with young men and women who have been placed there when they reach adult life. There is an endowment fund and BT has assisted some graduates with college or a trade. BT has offices that maintain contact with alumni. If life challenges get in the graduates’ way and they need help through rough patches, they can go back to BT for help.  

“I was at a judicial conference early in my judicial career when Judge Phillipson of Cass County asked me if I had ever thought of BT,” said Mullally.  “And, by the way, BT is about half girls now. When I came back from the conference, I contacted BT and discussed our county’s issues. Mike Flannery and I hopped an Amtrak to Omaha to visit BT and discuss the possibility of working out a relationship to send our juvenile offenders to BT.”

Apparently, there is quite a tale connected to Judge Mullally and Muskegon County Family Court’s per diem rate at BT for our county’s residents. I was told several versions of Judge Mullally’s quest by parties here in Muskegon and from those at BT.  It seems that Judge Mullally convincingly laid the county’s limited financial resources before BT and played on their heartstrings hoping to negotiate a workable per diem rate so that Muskegon County would be able to make the wonderful program at BT available to its young offenders. It was unusual for a judge to come from across the country to visit BT. As it turned out, Judge Mullally got quite the sweetheart deal for the county at a per diem of $15 per day and that rate held from 1987 until 1998 when it was raised to $25 per day. It was the lowest per diem rate charged to any agency by BT nationwide and, apparently, BT would not revisit that per diem for over a decade.  The story of the judge who took the train to BT is familiar both here and at BT in Omaha. 

At the time of the arrangement between the county and BT, Nate Wittgren was the Midwest Regional  BT Representative covering the Michigan counties of Genesee, Berrien, Ingham, Muskegon, and Kent Counties. Wittgren is now Director of Admissions for BT in Omaha. “At the time that Neil Mullally came to BT, it was just a little farm outside of Omaha.  He met Father Peter and toured the facility,” said Wittgren. “You do not see someone being as involved as Neil and for that long. He cares and is interactive with the kids. He seems to be able to identify kids with potential who will fit into our program. When he came out for this Spring’s graduation, he was not expecting an award. It has been great to work with him and he will always be welcome. He is One of a Kind.” Oh, and Wittgren also has a version of the Mullally train trip to BT.  

Now, the per diem rate for Muskegon residents at BT is adjusted annually based on the county’s ability to pay. State and Federal funds are factored into the payment and coordinated with county funds. To date, Muskegon County Family Court has provided just over 100 Muskegon youth offenders with the opportunity to obtain a high school diploma. The county has approximately 4-6 students enrolled in the BT program any given year. It is hoped that upon graduation, the youth will return to Muskegon and provide a positive role model for the community. Some do not return to this area, but take advantage of economic opportunities in other areas of the country.

The Family Court evaluates juvenile offenders and determines if the youth meets the criteria to go to Boys Town. Cartwright has worked for decades making the determination of need for boys and girls as to where they are sent.  “We review their home life or lack thereof and if it is not meeting their needs. We have limited juvenile offender care facilities in Michigan, so BT is an excellent choice,” said Cartwright.

Stevens and Cartwright could not sing the praises of Judge Mullally enough. Cartwright said, “I have worked in probation for Juvenile Court for over 23 years and Judge Mullally has always been so approachable. He listens and treats everyone with respect.”

They strongly stated that it was Judge Mullally who was the biggest advocate for the new Youth Transition Center and was instrumental in the establishment of the Balanced and Restorative Justice Center.  Stevens said, “He is the foundation of the Family Court and has been so for decades. He has a passion for the kids, the court, and the staff. He is irreplaceable and is the first to go talk to the kids. He sits down and talks to the kids and is genuinely interested in the kids.”
“When I think of Judge Mullally,” said Stevens, “I think of a mentor, friend, and father figure. Those are going to be very big shoes to fill. What he has done for the county’s youth is immeasurable. His passion for the kids pushed for the creation of the Family Court to make the children’s lives better.”

In closing, one of Judge Mullally’s favorite Father Flanagan quotes is: “There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.” 

Congratulations to Judge Mullally for his many years of dedicated service to the youth of our county. It was the hope of all interviewed that the Judge will still remain involved to a degree with the youth issues upon his retirement from the bench on Dec. 31.