Live from JDAI: Day One of Juvenile Justice Conference Week

Greetings from Phoenix!

Youth Services Insider, your faithful provider of industry news at The Chronicle of Social Change, is on the road this week reporting from both of the big annual juvenile justice conferences.

Up first: the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) Inter-Site Conference, an Annie E. Casey Foundation production. This is the 22nd annual pow-wow for a venture that started with a handful of people in a Greenwich, Conn. conference room, and now regularly draws hundreds of people from sites around the country.

Up second: the National Partnership for Juvenile Services national symposium. This brings together several hundred professionals working in security, education and development at juvenile facilities

So let’s start with day one at JDAI. All the big stars are out: JDAI Godfather Bart Lubow, Georgia Judge Steven Teske,  Annie E. Casey Foundation President Patrick McCarthy. We even saw Drake and Fetty Wap in the lobby! Untrue, but there are more than 900 people in attendance.

Some takeaways from the first day…

Merging Missions

JDAI originated with the goal of getting counties, and then states, to reduce the use of pre-adjudication detention for juveniles. In 2012, AECF announced that it would wade into the deep end (Hiyoooo!) and support efforts to curb juvenile incarceration.

That mission seemed somewhat separate from JDAI as the foundation has helped a select group of states to push placement reductions at big juvenile facilities. But a scan of this year’s panel discussions finds many sessions devoted to juvenile incarceration and alternatives to it. The lunch tomorrow will be served while three state directors of juvenile justice deliver responses to McCarthy’s recent TedX call for an end to juvenile prisons, period.

There seems to be a morphing of sorts, where you could see the term JDAI evolving into a general deincarceration brand as opposed to actual initials for words. It is a logical next step for Casey, which of course would love to see its detention reduction sites gain interest in lowering post-adjudication commitments. 

Children of the Dumping Ground

Today, early attendees to the conference were privy to the first public screening of “Children of the Dumping Ground.” It is the most recent production from Calamari Productions and its workhorse owner/documentarian, Karen Grau. And it might be the most important film she has made in a 17-year career.

The film follows a boy named Justin Woodrum, who is sent to the Indiana Department of Corrections’ highest security juvenile prison at age 14. Some salient facts about the case you learn right away:

  • Justin has an IQ of 42
  • He was molested by his father
  • He was abandoned by his oft-homeless mother right after his first appearance in a courtroom
  • He had no legal counsel in court with him, and no guardian ad litem

Justin’s transgression? While he and his mom stayed with a family friend, Justin asked for an extra pork chop at dinner and was told he could not have it. Displeased with the lack of attention he was getting, he left the dinner table and proceeded to fondle the couple’s young children.

This was done, he would tell authorities later, because he knew it would make the adults mad.

Presented with those facts, a judge decided to put an illiterate teen with a traumatic past into DOC custody instead of, you know, actually thinking about the implications of his actions for more than a minute.

We won’t ruin the film for you…you should watch it. It is heart-wrenching, but also somewhat uplifting in the end.

There are two journalists in America who, in YSI’s opinion, have contributed more to the discussion on youth services than any other. One is Karen de Sa, an investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, whose coverage over the years has exposed such issues as the over-drugging of foster youth and the weak network of legal counsel available to poor kids and families.

The other is Grau. Most of the work Calamari does is picked up and by cable networks, so the company itself sort of flies under the radar along with its owner. But Grau has opened up the Indiana juvenile and family courts to outside eyes, gaining unprecedented access from the state Supreme Court in the late 90s, and has used the access to pierce the veil around juvenile justice and child welfare proceedings.

Calamari has also pumped thousands of hours of court footage into the Institute for Juvenile Court and Corrections Research, an Indiana University-based repository for training juvenile justice and child welfare workers about best (and worst) practices when it comes to court.

So why is “Children of the Dumping Ground” her most important contribution to date? It is definitely not the most polished of Calamari’s work. Nor is it as visually compelling as, say, Grau’s coverage of Paul Gingerich, a 12-year-old sentenced to a life in adult prison.

But with this documentary, Grau has thrown a white-hot light on perhaps the most pressing issue in serving troubled youth: That we talk about it like there are two systems, when there are really three.

The juvenile justice system is meant to hold youth accountable for crimes in a manner that acknowledges the difference between them and adults. Child protection systems are meant to hold parents accountable for neglect and abuse inflicted upon children.

Neither of those systems is really supposed to attend to the needs of children with special developmental needs or acute mental health disorders. But routinely, both are asked to do exactly that, obfuscating the clear need for a coordinated mental health system for at-risk youth.

In many states, once a referral is made to the juvenile justice system, it can’t really say no. As DOC’s juvenile justice director Michael Dempsey puts it: “In every state I talk to, [juvenile justice] has become the mental health providers for kids with disabilities.”

Grau will be doing a little screening tour of the film in Indiana in partnership with the State Supreme Court. You can request a copy of the film or request a screening by e-mailing

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1213 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at