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Juvenile justice
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King County juvenile probation counselor never gives up on kids who lose their way

Helpful resources are becoming more and more available to juvenile offenders. (Hanna Scott, KIRO Radio)

Thousands of kids in King County get arrested every year for everything from shoplifting, to crimes as extreme as murder.

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They all get a chance at diversion for minor crimes. Others end up doing serious time.

Before it gets to that extreme, most have had multiple chances to turn things around. That often involves working with a probation counselor like Michelle Mihail, who works out of the Renton juvenile probation office.

“Most of the young people I work with now have convictions for robbery, gun convictions and then some drug possession and some assaults,” said Mihail.

She has up to 20 kids assigned to her at a time. A good chunk are in gangs, or are at risk of becoming involved with gangs. Many have been sent to probation from the court rather than being sentenced, have served as many as 30 days in county detention, or are offered a suspended sentence.

“The goal really now is how to we help create a place for behavior change and service provision,” Mihail explained.

“I really see the court and those conditions as the container to operate in, but my goal really is ‘how do I help them learn better skills so they’re not repeatedly coming back into the system,’” she added.

How it’s done

Mihail does the assessment, determines what type of services a kid needs, and assigns a plan. That includes working with a variety of programs, like drug and alcohol or mental counseling, in-home family therapy, anger management classes, education and employment services, assigning a mentor, and more.

“Pretty much I’m willing to work with anyone who my kid’s willing to work with, even if that takes some coaching or some guidance to get them there. But really we … work collaboratively in the best interest if this child and this family,” Mihail said.

It’s all about teaching the kids how to change behavior and giving them the tools to do that.

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Even so, not every kid gets it right away. Some fall out of compliance, and others finish probation but are repeat offenders who end up back on her caseload.

“I really see that as ‘there’s maybe still some skills lacking, and what do we need to help build up?’ Maybe what do we have to help them practice more? Maybe they have it in certain environments, but when it comes to more of their friends around or other high risk environments, it’s harder to say no, or harder to come up with alternative answers to some of those situations,” Mihail said.

It’s a tough job that can come with hard outcomes.

“There [was] a young man on my caseload who had been in the juvenile justice system for some time and really received a lot of intervention,” she recalled. “Unfortunately, his substance abuse was such that he died from a drug overdose on Memorial Day. He was very funny and charismatic, had a contagious laugh and smile, and we collectively who knew him and loved him thought that he had really started to turn a corner. Unfortunately, it can be just that quick.”

She’s also lost kids to gun violence, while others who’ve been on her caseload have not been able to change direction, and are now doing hard time for taking a life.

Those are the extremes, and it can be frustrating, but Mihail always remains invested in the kids.

“The kids are why I show up. You know, they’re … generally very talented, smart young kids who just have kind of lost their way,” she explained.

A day on the job

I spent an entire day with Mihail out on the job, which was packed with a lengthy to-do list.

One of our first stops was a weekly check-in with one of the kids on her caseload, who we are not naming for his protection.

The 17-year-old is at an alternative school where he’s trying to get caught up on school, which had not been a priority over the past couple of years.

At the meeting, Mihail said she was excited to hear him say he’s changed his mind — rather than take the GED later this year, he wants to stick it out and get his diploma.

The kid also shared his excitement about the summer gardening job he had just been connected with, and loves the welding program he’s working in and getting paid for. All that is part of his long term plan.

His path in the wrong direction started when he started hanging out with the wrong crowd and quickly got sucked in.

“It was cool, you feel me? So I started liking it. I’d rather go sell some drugs than go to school,” the teen explained, pointing to the money he would make.

Feeling a sense of belonging to something was also part of the attraction.

“Just hanging out with the homies, you don’t got no one to hang out with and there’s a whole group of people over there … smoking weed, drinking, got money, got girls, you know what I’m saying?” he described. “When you’re lonely, you’d rather go hang out with them and have some friends, so that’s what I did. I felt like I didn’t have no one and then I started hanging out with them and I felt like I belonged, felt like it was my family.”

By that time, he had stopped showing up to school and home for weeks at a time. That had him at odds with his single-mom who was worried about getting a call that he was in jail or the morgue, a legitimate concern, according to the teen.

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He’s since been working hard to better himself using the tools Mihail has put in front of him, along with many others. That includes a mentor, and education and employment coordinator. He knows it’s up to him to stay on track, and says he has the common sense to do what needs to be done and stay away from his old crowd.

“If I was to go to the hood today and go hang out, not even do no dumb stuff just hang out, the next day I’d probably go back to the hood also, and the next day after that,” he said. “Then soon thereafter it’s going to be no going to school, go right to the hood, [and] start doing bad things I used to do. It would be dumb to go back to that when I worked so hard, get myself locked up. It’s not worth it.”

That’s not his only concern.

“It ain’t worth it just to go to the hood to hang out … and if something happens you get killed. All you was doing is hanging out, you ain’t even been in the hood for days, for months you just hanging out with your friends, so that means you ain’t got nothing to do with what been going on, whoever been shooting and anything – you ain’t been doing it. Why should you have to take the bullet for what he did? So I’m glad I’m not hanging out in the hood because that’s usually how it goes,” he said.

“It’s scary… it’s scary,” he added.

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