Collaboration key to court success, agency leaders say
ALPENA — When courts, law enforcement, and social service agencies put their heads together, lives get better and the whole community benefits, a table full of experts said.
A day after Judge Thomas LaCross announced his plan to retire from Alpena’s 88th District Court, effective at the end of October, five people gathered around a courtroom table to talk about changes to Alpena’s court system in the past 15 years.
In the past decade and a half, they said, Alpena’s criminal justice system moved from a focus on punishment to a system dedicated to sharing ideas and resources to make individuals — and the community — stronger.
“It’s a new mentality,” LaCross said. “It’s, ‘How can we work together? How can we do this together?'”
When LaCross stepped into the judgeship in 2007, he immediately mandated meetings between all agencies whose work tangented the courts, according to District Court Administrator Liz Skiba.
“And we solved problems,” said Skiba, describing spirited meetings between probation officers, child protective agencies, court representatives, and others, all sharing their perspective on the best way to respond to the needs of people in the court system while enforcing laws and preserving families.
“We busted barriers,” LaCross said. “We got communication. We like each other. We can disagree without being disagreeable.”
Courts and other agencies fighting to help families don’t always see eye to eye on cases such as petitions regarding vulnerable adults or minors — nor should they, said John Keller, executive director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in Alpena.
Still, each side can — and should — agree to listen to the other to protect vulnerable people, a coming-together Keller said works in Alpena because the community and court system want to fix problems, not just punish crime.
In the past 15 or 20 years, Alpena courts — and society as a whole — shifted focus to intentionally work to preserve families, rather than shuffling people through a cycle of “arrest, court, probation, repeat,” according to Larry LaCross, clinical supervisor with Catholic Human Services’ eastern region.
Programs meant to meet people’s needs have to be connected to the courts, because “people who have complex needs tend to come to the attention of the court system,” Larry LaCross said. “Because life gets messy.”
Alpena’s drug court, started in 2011, and a program for at-risk youth started last year exemplify the effectiveness of multiple entities all turning their combined attention — and help — to one person at a time, Keller said.
Families in court may have to interact with protective services officials, mental health representatives, medical personnel, guardians, counselors, law enforcement, and more — a complicated process smoothed by collaboration, said Probate Court Register Lynn Edmonds.
Recent police- and court-related reforms at the state level demonstrate a new, non-adversarial approach to the criminal justice system, one reflected by Alpena’s courts and residents, Skiba said.
“We’re doing better at treating people like people,” she said.
Agencies all over Alpena work to help people make their lives better, Skiba said, and, “everybody’s trying to do something.”
Though courts have solved many problems through a shift in mindset in recent years, more putting-together-of-heads is needed to face challenges such as a severe lack of adult foster care homes and other housing for people in crisis and under court order, Edmonds said.
Alpena has to find ways to offer addiction recovery housing, increase mental health care options, and provide tools to fight drug and alcohol addiction, all while keeping the community safe, the group said.
Such obstacles, though daunting, will be met the way the community and courts have met challenges for the past 15 years – by working together, Thomas LaCross said.
“We have a track record of doing exactly that,” the judge said. “Through collaboration, issue by issue by issue. And issue by issue by issue, we will respond.”