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juvenile court

mom and four kids
April Van Buren / Michigan Radio

Foster care is supposed to be a temporary fix. When a child ends up in state care, the first goal is to reunite them with their birth families. But only about half of the 13,000 children in Michigan’s child welfare system every year end up going home. A small group of parents in Washtenaw County wants to change that. 

flickr.com/swaity / Licenced under Creative Commons https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Michelle Gach grabs a couple slices of pizza before we get started. She has a story to tell, and it turns out to be a long one, covering the past 14 years of her life, with more tragic turns than most people see in an entire lifetime.

But that comes later. For now, we’re sitting in a room together: Michelle, two of her daughters, and two friendly pit bulls.

The room is mostly bare, exposed plywood on the floor, blue strips of painter’s tape along the baseboard, new doors still leaning against the wall. A project waiting to be finished.

While Michelle Gach finishes her pizza, her daughter Felicity begins to tell me the story of what happened on a Saturday in August 2014.

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

This is a story about second chances.

When a teen commits a crime it goes on their permanent record, which can lead to all kinds of disadvantages down the road. When they go to apply for a job, for example, they’ll have to admit they broke the law. But a diversion program out of Wayne County gives some low-level, first-time offenders a way to admit their guilt and keep their record clean at the same time. 

Let’s meet the defendant

Chloe (not her real name) was with her friend at J.C. Penney. Her friend stole a bunch of stuff while they were there; Chloe stole a $30 bracelet. They both got caught before they could run out of the store.

Since shoplifting is a misdemeanor and because this is Chloe’s first ever run-in with the law, she’s decided to take her case to Teen Court. This particular teen court is affiliated with the Detroit Public School district. But there are dozens of teen courts around the state and more than 1,000 across the country.

In order for teen court to work, the defendant has to admit up front that she broke the law. Then it’s up to a group of high school students – a literal jury of her peers – to come up with an appropriate sentence.

"Hopefully they teach me something and hopefully they learn from my mistakes and stuff" says Chloe. "And I hope I leave there feeling relieved that I finally got to talk about it."