Advocate: U-M alumna heads Michigan Center for Youth Justice

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Mary King, executive director of the Michigan Center for Youth Justice, likes to relate the story about heroes rushing into a raging river to pull drowning kids to safety. But then more kids were in the river, and the rescuers continued their efforts—until one said, "Maybe we should go upstream and see who’s throwing them in.”

“I’m passionate about the work I do, because we're ‘upriver’ trying to keep kids from getting thrown in the raging waters,” says King, the nonprofit organization’s executive director for the past four years.
Founded in 1956 as the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, MCCD changed its vision, mission and name to the Michigan Center for Youth Justice (MCYJ) in January.

“Kids who get into trouble are still kids,” King says. “As part of the tough on crime era, children and young adults who broke the law were painted as dangerous predators, especially if they were youth of color. People used words to describe them like ‘delinquent’—including our organization – formerly the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency. And while some youth enter the system for serious crimes, much too often kids come to the court’s attention for the crime of simply being a child—expressing frustration, acting impulsively, pushing boundaries, or taking risks.

“As executive director of MCYJ, I have the honor and privilege of helping to change policies and practices that are harmful to our youth, and support reforms that will lead to better outcomes for young people—including those in my family, my neighborhood, my community and my state.”

Last October, Michigan joined the majority of states by signing the Raise the Age Bill package into law, raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18. The law is set to take effect on October 1, 2021.

“This will positively impact thousands of young people every year by giving them the opportunity to receive age appropriate services and supervision, and removing 17-year-olds from the adult justice system,” King says.

“When we spoke to legislators about the importance of making this change, we asked a woman who had been convicted as an adult for getting in a fight with someone at a mall when she was 17, to speak about her experience. Although she was now well into her 30s, married, pregnant, and about to complete her MSW, that conviction for a youthful mistake continued to haunt her at every turn. She was so excited to be part of reform that would ensure that 17-year-olds would not routinely experience the same barriers she faced.”

MCYJ works with legislators to help them understand the value of giving youngsters a second chance, and supporting them in their efforts to change how justice-involved kids in Michigan are treated.

“We've had legislators contact us when they've seen something about the current system that doesn't sit well with them, and they want to know how they can make things better—we’re always happy to help,” King says.

She notes juvenile courts and their staff have a tremendous amount of responsibility.

“They are always having to balance the safety of the community and the physical and emotional safety of the youth under their care. We’re dedicated to supporting youth justice professionals in working more effectively with young people, and will continue to provide trainings, facilitations, and technical assistance, when requested,” she says.

The MCYJ staff includes returning citizens with first-hand knowledge of the system.

“MCYJ believes people who are directly impacted by a problem must be included in developing solutions,” King says. “Many formerly incarcerated people were involved in the juvenile justice system when they were kids. It’s important our staff and our Board of Directors include people who have been directly impacted to ensure their perspective deeply informs our work.”

Michigan is home to an estimated 311,000 adults and 61,000 youth who identify as having a diverse SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression) and a lack of legal protections makes them vulnerable to discrimination and harm. The MCYJ works in partnership with the Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit to create a LGBTQ-affirming juvenile justice system in Wayne County that does not criminalize LGBTQ youth, and that addresses their needs in community-based settings, and prevents harms associated with detention and incarceration.

“Youth who identify as gay, lesbian, gender nonconforming, and transgender—LGBTQ+--are overrepresented in the youth justice system, spend more time in detention and confinement, and are at higher risk for self-harm and physical and sexual abuse,” King says. “Preliminary outcomes from the Transforming Justice Project show that when staff are trained and supported to work more effectively with LGBTQ+ youth, kids do better and staff feel more confident.”

Another challenge is in helping Michigan's rural communities that often struggle with finding resources justice-involved kids need. The In Home Community Care Grant, was created in 2013 to provide counties with resources to start new in-home programs. It is currently a pilot project focused on 4 rural counties per year.

“Our hope is that Michigan legislators will see the benefits and continue their appropriation support to expand the project to other rural communities in the state,” King says.

King found her lifetime passion in the 1980s, while in undergrad at the University of Michigan where she majored in political science with a minor in drama and women's studies. Interning at the Huron Valley Women’s Correctional Facility south of Ann Arbor, she was assigned to counsel women who were in educational programming and needed emotional support. Early in her internship, she met with a young woman who was her age and from a similar background.

“She was in prison because a young man she recently began dating robbed a gas station while she was sitting in the car, unaware. And I thought, ‘There but by the grace of God, go I’. I realized what distinguished me from her was luck and circumstances,” King says.

In the women’s prison, King found women who were desperately poor, and often—but not exclusively—from communities of color. Many had mental illness and substance abuse disorders, and had experienced barriers caused by racism, sexism, and/or classism. 

“I realized all of the social justice issues about which I cared most deeply were directly impacting the people who were incarcerated in our state’s prisons—and I was hooked,” she says.

In 1988, King created the Women’s Program at Options Center, the first program for formerly incarcerated women in Washtenaw County, providing services and support unique to the needs of each woman.

“Many were moms returning home after having been separated from their children, with all of the resulting heartache, and hardship that goes with that experience,” she says. “For example, there were moms who returned with no job and the ‘scarlet letter’ of a felon conviction, and they were being asked by their weary family members to immediately assume responsibility for their kids, even though they were struggling to put together stable employment and housing. This resulted in significant stress and anxiety, and the women needed a tremendous amount of support.”

King became the first coordinator for the Children’s Visitation Program, which brought children from all over Michigan for structured visits with their incarcerated mothers; and in 2006, began eight years as Community Coordinator for the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative (MPRI) in Washtenaw and Livingston Counties.

“I loved everything about the MPRI,” she says.

“It was exciting to be on the cutting edge of implementing national best practices in my own home community. The community’s support for the program, and the men and women it served, was overwhelming. It was simply miraculous watching men and women who had failed, sometimes multiple times, when they had been previously released, experience their first successful reentry, and find a job and a place to live and a community of support.

“I was devastated when funding for community services was reduced by almost 70% of the State’s original investment.”

King recalls where MPRI's supportive housing project provided stable housing and case management services for a man in his 60s who had experienced chronic mental illness and had been in and out of prison his entire adult life. He had never had his own apartment, and because of this housing instability, was unable to stay on his medication, would relapse, and be sent back to prison. The cycle repeated again and again.

“When he was placed in permanent supportive housing with Avalon, funded through MPRI, his life was literally transformed,” King says. “He became one of my speaking buddies, and helped me give presentations all over the county about the effectiveness of the program.”

King lives in Ann Arbor, “I love living in a city with so much culture, and so many people that are passionate about social justice,” she says.




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