Young offenders transform at the Monarch Academy

To become a butterfly, a caterpillar must first undergo a tremendous transformation. 

In December 2021, Midland County’s Juvenile Care Center (JCC) renamed their Day Treatment Program. Now, it is known as the Monarch Academy. 
Ryan Griffus is the director of the Juvenile Care Center in Midland County.
“For me, it's symbolic of exactly where we need to be in working with juveniles,” says Ryan Griffus, director of the Juvenile Care Center. “They're little caterpillars, and they're still growing and trying to get to the point where they're ready to spring out into whatever life is going to throw at them. And once we get them in here – through mentorship and teaching and programming that we have available to them and schooling and all that – we get them back to that point where now they go out and spread their wings.”

The Monarch Academy is an intensive treatment program for youth ages 11-17 who continue to be involved with the county’s courts after other court interventions. The Academy is housed in the front section of JCC’s facility at 3712 E. Ashman St., along with a secure juvenile detention facility in the back for youth ages 11-17. JCC began accepting youths in 1997.

“Detention is a negative consequence to criminal behavior, and Monarch Academy is the treatment part of getting them from the juvenile system out into being rehabilitated,” says Dorene S. Allen, Judge of Midland County’s Probate and Juvenile Court for the past 22 years.
The Monarch Academy is tailored to each individual, including how long it takes to graduate. Needs range from severely low IQ to suicidal ideations and substance abuse.
Only Midland youths are allowed in the Monarch Academy. Out-of-county youths are accepted in detention, and those counties pay a daily rate to Midland County to hold them.

“The Midland County Juvenile Court – where I’m the judge of – we only deal with Midland kids,” says Judge Allen. “So an investment in our youth when they are having trouble is an investment in the community. … You are investing in youth that demographically, they stay here in Midland County. It’s an investment in the future of Midland County.”
The Honorable Dorene Allen is the Midland County Probate Court judge.
To be admitted to the Academy, a judge must order it. Midland County detention youths may also be ordered to attend the Academy during the daytime hours, returning to secure detention in the evening.

“Some of our youth actually graduate from day treatment and so on their diploma, it doesn't say ‘Midland County 42nd Circuit Court, Day Treatment Program,’” says Judge Allen. “What it will say now is Monarch Academy High School degree. … It's called reducing the criminogenic factors, and that was the whole goal.”

By addressing these criminogenic factors proactively, crime can be reduced. In the past two decades, the Monarch Academy graduates have seen an over 90% decrease in delinquency, an 80% decline in drug offenses, and a 94% reduction in alcohol use. 

Marley is one of JCC’s therapy dogs. She was donated by Kathryn Bolinger, an attorney who has had many of the youth she has represented placed at the JCC.Youth who have completed their Recovering Youth Futures program, which provides therapy for court wards and community youth with substance use disorders, are achieving a 15% two-year recidivism rate compared to nationally reported averages in the 40-50% range. Recidivism is the tendency for a convicted criminal to re-offend. 

“You look to take those youths from the criminal system into functioning outside of that and never being involved in that again,” says Judge Allen. “... They’re kids and they've done something stupid, but it's criminal, and it's our job to lend a sense of humanity to it.”

The Monarch Academy is based on a Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy/Treatment (CBT) model with a focus on targeting criminogenic risk factors through cognitive restructuring and skill acquisition throughout the day.“The challenges of dealing with an undeveloped mind – a young mind like that – brings its own unique struggles, let alone the multiple layers of trauma they've likely experienced over their lifetime,” says Griffus. “… That (trauma) manifests into their behaviors and ultimately leads to them running afoul of the law. We're trying to balance that: being trauma-informed and very well-versed in how we provide trauma-informed care, but also holding kids accountable for the actions that brought them here.”

Both detention and the Monarch Academy target risk factors for criminal behavior through cognitive groups and interventions and evidence-based treatment programming like aggression reduction training, substance abuse counseling, life skills development, Midland Mentors, Strengthening Families, and Multisystemic Therapy. 
“I changed my life while I was in this place. I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to come here instead of a different place,” says Isaiah, an out-of-county youth in detention and senior in high school. Isaiah has been in different facilities across the state since March 2021 and transferred to Midland last September. He enjoys challenging ideas within his religion and talking about philosophy.

One of The Monarch Academy goals is to provide a safe, structured, intensive, high fidelity, evidence-based treatment program for moderate to high risk youth. The youths also keep up with their schooling, with Monarch students attending high school classes aligned with the Midland Public Schools.

“They expect the [Monarch] kids to come in and be a little disorderly and our kids are not,” says Griffus. “They’ve learned and acquired so many skills that now help them come in and really buckle down and do what they need to do.”

The Monarch Academy also has targeted programming with parents and siblings. 

“We can coach the kids up here and we can build new skills here, but at the end of the day, they're heading back into an environment that proved not very healthy for their choices or their external influences,” says Griffus. “... It's pretty in-depth as far as recognizing that it's not just the youth that might be struggling, but we recognize the many layers of influence that that youth is coming from.”

Both Griffus and Judge Allen agreed that community support in Midland was a significant reason for the success of both the Monarch Academy and detention.

“It's a heavy lift,” says Judge Allen. “There's lots of moving parts, and we have extremely strong collaboration with our Community Mental Health, with the Department of Health and Human Services, with the private psychological agencies here. So, we've been able to do things at a quite different level because of the receptiveness within those institutions and organizations. The Board of Commissioners has been great as far as supporting programmatically when they see that something's working so that we have sustainability, and there's an institutionalization of the programming. It's not just here for one day.”

Monarch’s facility serves up to 22 youth. Youth are transported to and from the program by staff and are provided 3 meals/day during the school year and 2 meals/day during the summer.“For me, it's been nine months of just seeing the beauty of what community support and the support from the court and everything that can go into these programs and make them successful,” says Griffus, who has been in his role as director for nine months. “... My whole career I've really longed to be part of a system that has such intuition into what our young people need, and I feel we have it here.
 “Out of all the facilities I’ve been to, this is the best facility I’ve been to. They have so many learning opportunities. … All the staff here are very kind and understanding and they’ll always have conversations with you about what’s going on.” — Isaiah, out-of-county youth in detention
Griffus recognizes Judge Allen as a catalyst for change. “It comes from the top down. Judge Allen has built something here. … I was a huge fan of Judge Allen because of all the progressive programming that she implemented here with the court that’s advanced beyond our years as far as understanding of our families and youth. When I had the opportunity to come here, I was starstruck because that's who I really look to for leadership from the top. It starts with the court, and I've seen that in all the counties I've worked in.”

Read more articles by Crystal Gwizdala.

Crystal Gwizdala is a freelance writer with a focus on health and science. As a lifelong resident of the Tri-Cities, she loves sharing how our communities are overcoming challenges. Crystal is also a serial hobbyist — her interests range from hiking or drawing to figuring out how to do a handstand. Her work can be seen in Wide Open Eats, The Xylom, Woman & Home, and The Detroit Free Press. To see what Crystal’s up to, you can follow her on Twitter @CrystalGwizdala.