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Recalling the adage “We are all better than our worst act,” Executive Director Kathy Lyons is giving voice to the conviction that drives an Evanston organization to serve – and save – some of the City’s most vulnerable youth.

For 35 years, the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, 1123 Emerson Ave., has been representing low-income Evanston kids in trouble – in the courts, schools, and community.

What originated in 1981 as a City Council response to the lack of legal services for indigent youth has grown into an agency geared to help heal those kids and prepare them to become productive members of the Evanston community. 

While its fundamental work is legal advocacy – “our bread and butter,” Ms. Lyons calls it – the Center early on understood the necessity of buttressing legal aid with social work services. That “was a novel way of thinking 30 years ago,” she says.

“The kids we represent are struggling,” she says. Suffering the effects of poverty, many are homeless and/or living with mental health problems and substance abuse and plagued at school by learning disabilities.

“Our founders,” Ms. Lyons continues, “recognized that solving one problem didn’t help. These kids don’t have the means to deal with their needs.”

Representation

The Moran Center categorizes its work into three Rs. Its first job is representation. Most of the youth who come to the Center are referred by the courts for free legal aid. To qualify, they must be Evanston residents under 21 with 80% or less of the poverty income as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Two full-time attorneys – retired public defender Tim Verdun and Patrick Keenan-Devlin, who handles cases for youth 17 and under – provide legal assistance in the areas of juvenile delinquency and adult felony and misdemeanor.

The Center also represents parents of School District 65 and 202 children in disciplinary matters and supports families navigating the districts’ special education programs.

Restoration        

Beyond the courtroom, the Center aims to restore lives through social work programming that addresses clients’ individual needs and gives them the tools to make choices for a brighter future.

The Center views a request for legal assistance as an opportunity to help youth and families come to grip with issues – personal risk factors and/or social and emotional  problems – that contribute to failure at home, school, or in social interactions.

“We use the moment to help kids begin to connect,” Ms. Lyons says. “All kids want to connect. We hope to connect them to people and organizations that will help them not to be a tragedy.” Some youth form such strong attachments at the Center that they return on and off for years.

Joi-Anissa Russell, Director of Strategic Partnerships, says the Center answers kids’ need for “a safe place to be themselves.” It is “the only organization that offers integrated legal and social work services,” she says. “The social workers and lawyers go above and beyond. Nobody’s judging.”

 Two full-time staff social workers, Kristen Kennard and Asa Gezelius, offer individual, family, and group counseling as well as programs on anger management and conflict resolution. The lawyers and social workers “go to homes, schools, drive kids to tutors,” Ms. Lyons says. She jokes that “we have sometimes ‘integrated’ our legal and social services in one person.”

Ms. Lyons says her predecessor’s recognition that “most of the kids in the juvenile justice system have some disability” led six or seven years ago to a new focus on special education. An integral part of the Center’s work is helping families determine “what [school] services are available and how to access them,” she says.

Such interventions are intended to be preventative. A dangerous alternative is the “school-to-prison pipeline,” Ms. Lyons says – a syndrome in which the risk factors of low-income children of color and those with special needs compound to propel kids out of school and into the juvenile justice system.

More likely than their peers to suffer from learning disabilities or mental health issues, these at-risk children are as a result three times more likely to be suspended from school, then three times more likely to drop out and, lacking a high school diploma, three times more likely to be incarcerated.

“If we get at that pipeline early on, we can stem the flow,” Ms. Lyons says. But once entangled in the juvenile justice system, it is “difficult to extricate yourself,” she says. “It’s a machine – a bad one.”

Being detained as a juvenile is the number one predictor for adult incarceration.

Redirection

Crucial to pointing clients toward a positive future is the Expungement and Sealing Help Desk, staffed by lawyers from the Center who operate at the Skokie Courthouse. There is no residency requirement or fee for this service. The Help Desk accounts for half the 1,000 youths the Moran Center serves each year.

Expunging (permanently clearing) or sealing (not clearing, but closing to all but a few people) young people’s records of certain nonviolent juvenile crimes is one of the Center’s most important roles. Unless expunged or sealed, an arrest or criminal record will follow a youth indefinitely, hindering everything from employment to housing to college admission. In some cases, Ms. Lyons says, clients can get a Certificate of Rehabilitation. These processes “get people employable and help Evanston,” she says.

In their role as champions for youth, the Moran Center staff is committed to educating kids and parents about their rights. “We want all kids to have the rights we’d want for our own children,” Ms. Lyons says.

Group training sessions take families step by step through the juvenile justice process, emphasizing such legal rights as the right of youths to remain silent until both a lawyer and a parent are present.

The Center measures its impact in statistics: 8 of 10 youths improve school attendance and grades, 8 of 10 meet their goals in counseling, 7 of 10 succeed in complying with court orders. It also counts successes that, though they look small from the outside, “might be big for our kids,” Ms. Lyons says, citing the 13-year-old with the clenched-fist walk transformed in four years to a smiling teen with two jobs and enough credits to graduate.

The Evanston Community and Beyond

The Center collaborates with local organizations that understand their clients and offer specialized expertise and programming. They refer youths to the likes of the VIP program as an alternative to school suspension; to Partnership for Peace for activities designed to improve police-youth relations; to Y.O.U. for its middle-school agenda; to the City of Evanston Diversion program; to PEER Services for substance abuse counseling; and to the Youth Job Center for employment opportunities.

The Moran Center’s goal, Ms. Lyons says, is “a safer, peaceful community where young people can grow up to be successful.” Though the field of juvenile justice is fraught with problems, she says that, state- and nationwide, there is “new attention to the systemic ways we’re looking at youth and crime.”

“Other countries don’t prosecute children.” Ms. Lyons says. In his Feb. 26 op-ed piece in the New York Times, “Stop Trying Children in Adult Court,” Kennedy School research fellow Vincent Schiraldi praised the 2014 Illinois decision to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 16 to 18. The result has been a 43% decline in the population of state juvenile institutions.

New brain research shows that youth do not reach full maturity till their mid-20s, Ms. Lyons says – that, in the words of the editorial, “young people are developmentally different from adults in impulsivity, future orientation, susceptibility to peer pressure and risk-taking.”  Even economics show juvenile detention to be a poor use of resources. In Cook County it costs $200,000 per year to incarcerate, but only $20,000 to educate a youth, Ms. Lyons says.

Sandy Hook and Ferguson, she says, have pointed to “the tragedy of disconnected youth – to what we are not doing to support people who have been living in quiet desperation.”

The Moran Center is working every day to mitigate that tragedy, one child at a time.