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New juvenile diversion program for youth with disabilities launched at Cook County Juvenile Center

Posted: 09/25/2012
Roosevelt University’s Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation announced today that it has started a new program that will attempt to address the needs of disabled youth who are caught up in Cook County’s juvenile justice system.

The program, launched this month at the Cook County Juvenile Center in Chicago, matches parent and legal advocates with disabled youths who are referred for disability services by their probation officers.

“We must ensure that children in need of services for their disabilities get those services,” said Heather Dalmage, professor of sociology and director of the Mansfield Institute, which has been a leader in Chicago in the effort to keep kids on a path to education, career and life success, rather than on a track to and cycle of incarceration. “Otherwise, we banish these kids to a life of few opportunities,” she said.

It is estimated that youths with disabilities may comprise up to 70 percent of the Cook County juvenile justice system’s population/caseload. Based on work she has been doing with the Mansfield Institute to implement a restorative justice disciplinary policy in the Chicago Public Schools, Dalmage has seen a disturbing pattern in which kids in trouble don’t get services addressing their disabilities. Instead, these youth are suspended or expelled from school, landing them on the street and frequently into the juvenile justice system where they languish further, she said.

“Many of these kids in the juvenile system have had little in the way of services to address their disabilities,” she said. “They need these services and the schools are required to provide them. Getting the appropriate services will make a difference in moving them toward a productive adulthood.”

Developed by the Mansfield Institute in collaboration with the diversion unit at the Cook County juvenile probation office and advocates, the new initiative calls for probation officers to refer kids whom they suspect of having disabilities to advocates who then work with the kids and their parents/guardians to place them in services/programs dealing with disabilities.
The team of advocates includes representatives from the not-for-profit Family Resource Center on Disabilities and the nonprofit Equip for Equality. Since the new program began two weeks ago, 30 youths and their parent/guardians are now working with advocates to ensure they are receiving services for their disabilities, according to Dalmage.

”When we do not address the particular needs of youth in the educational process, they don’t succeed and frequently end up being incarcerated.  We have an obligation to change this,” she said.

Dalmage recently joined the Illinois Attorney General’s Committee on Special Education. For more information on her new initiative or to speak with Dalmage concerning the challenges that kids with disabilities frequently face in the schools, contact the Mansfield Institute at 312-341-3692 or