Trial Separation

Is the location of the Milwaukee County’s Children’s Court hindering the effective administration of juvenile justice?

As far as his mother knows, one thing is certain: Tremaine wasn’t the one who stole the car.

“Somebody else stole it, and dumped it off on my son,” his mother says, standing in her kitchen one winter morning. But Tremaine took the car from his disingenuous benefactor – despite not being old enough for a driver’s license, or even a learner’s permit.

When Milwaukee police pulled him and his buddies over, “My son and his friends hopped out of the car and ran,” his mother says. Not for long. Taken into custody, the 15-year-old spent the night in juvenile detention. His mother calls it “jail.”

“It scared the mess out of him,” she says softly.

For being caught driving the stolen vehicle, Tremaine had to go to juvenile court. His mother saw that as an opportunity.

“He was getting out of control,” she says. “I asked, when we were in court, for him to be removed from the house. I thought we should nip it in the bud right away.”

The judge gave Tremaine 20 days.

When at last the month was up, Tremaine returned to live with his mother, grandmother and sister in their second-floor flat on Milwaukee’s Northwest Side. Now comes the hard work of keeping him out of trouble. So far, so good, says his mother; his most recent report card came home with six B’s – his best, by far, in a long time.

“He’s lucky,” she says. “He changed his attitude.”

For Tremaine’s mother, the pain of having a child in trouble with the law was intensified by her long distance from juvenile court and juvenile detention. Both are in the same building in Wauwatosa on the Milwaukee County Grounds, nearly 9 miles from Downtown Milwaukee. Taking public transportation meant riding three different buses, she says. With no car of her own, she paid relatives to drive her to Tosa for court proceedings and jail visits.

“It was hard to get out there,” she says. (The names of young people and their families involved with the court system have been omitted or have been changed for this story.)

Indeed, it’s hard for many to get out there. The hub of the county’s juvenile justice apparatus, located almost as far west of Downtown as Mayfair Mall, could hardly be more isolated from the rest of its criminal justice system’s machinery – or from the people who must pass through its doors, whether they are clients, victims or accused.

Set back from a sprawling parking lot only recently refinished, the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center at 10201 W. Watertown Plank Rd. looks like anything but a courthouse. Its circular shape and low roofline bear the unmistakable stamp of mid-20th-century cutting-edge architecture. The building more closely resembles a middle school, a motel or a suburban church.

It opened in 1961 as the Milwaukee County Children’s Court Center and was renamed for Vel Phillips, the state’s first African-American judge, nearly 50 years later, in 2009. But the old name has stuck: Pretty much everyone seems to still call it Children’s Court.

The Children’s Court’s comparatively remote location might once have been considered a feature, not a bug. Now, though, the distance has become part of a quiet but intense conversation among professionals who work in and around the juvenile court. An emerging consensus holds that the time is approaching – has arrived, even – to move Children’s Court back Downtown from the county’s western rim, returning it to the area around the Milwaukee County Courthouse that was once its home.

The interest arises from much more than simply a concern for the transportation convenience of families whose lives it touches. It reflects a continuing evolution in how Children’s Court is supposed to work, and how it might best accomplish its mission.

The looming decision about whether, and how, to move the court is tinged with irony.

It would undo a move more than a half-century ago that, at least in part, was supposed to emphasize the fundamentally different nature of the juvenile justice system from the adult courts. Yet returning the court Downtown might be seen as a way to fulfill the vision behind moving it out to Wauwatosa in the first place.

Another irony: Lawyers, judges, police and social workers who work in and around juvenile justice argue that effectively helping the youngest lawbreakers and potential lawbreakers turn from crime toward lives of accomplishment is one of the keys to building prosperous and safe communities. Yet in the wake of the community’s loud arguments over whether and how much taxpayers should pony up for a new arena, the continuing conversations about moving Children’s Court have yet to break the surface of public awareness.

The Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center is at the center of many a Milwaukee family’s life, yet so very far from Downtown Milwaukee. Photo by Sara Stathas.
Photo by Sara Stathas.

The juvenile justice center wound up in its remote location via a mix of choice and happenstance. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, much of western Milwaukee County was still farmland. That same era saw the construction of what is now Interstate 94 beyond the area, which further encouraged building Children’s Court on the county’s western edge.

Philosophy also appears to have played a role. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm says its location was probably meant to reinforce the idea that juvenile justice should be as distinct from the regular courts as possible. The adult system focused on punishment to deter wrongdoing. Juvenile justice made it a priority to help kids in trouble.

“The thinking in the early and mid-’60s was that children’s intersection with the criminal justice system should be treated completely differently” from adult court, says Chisholm. “The best way to do that would be to completely separate it from the criminal justice system.” Such a dramatic separation “was probably the right idea,” he says. “However, it was probably a little bit naive.”

Since that era, much has changed. Juvenile crime has become far more violent. Youths have far greater access to drugs and lethal weapons. Meanwhile, federal and state laws and court rulings have changed how prosecutors and police are supposed to deal with juveniles.

In the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that when juveniles go to court, they’re entitled to due-process rights at least as strong as those of adult criminal suspects. For lawyers and cops, juvenile court soon began to look more and more like adult courts. “Pretty soon, what you found was that you had a parallel system that surrounded the adult system, but was physically separated,” says Chisholm.

Children’s Court is more than just the place where juvenile crime is prosecuted. Eight judges and three court commissioners posted there also hear cases of children needing protection or services, or CHiPS – victims or potential victims of abuse and neglect – and young people beginning to go off the rails through chronic truancy or being so incorrigible their parents have asked the court for help. Kids under 10 who have committed “delinquent acts” are too young under the law for the routine of juvenile court; they are classified as “juveniles in need of protection or services,” or JiPS.

Other child welfare cases are heard there, including termination of parental rights, when children are removed from parents either because of severe abuse or neglect, or because birth parents are placing them for adoption.

Lawyers for the district attorney’s office, the state public defender, and the guardian ad litem – a court-appointed lawyer representing the interest of the child apart from the parents – all have offices in the building. Milwaukee Public Schools and Sojourner Family Peace Center do as well. And the building houses the county’s Juvenile Detention Center, where young people are held if they are arrested and not released to family members.

The Children’s Court presiding judge is Mary Triggiano, who carries a quiet, no-nonsense demeanor softened by the warmth of a favorite aunt. “This is a little world out here – a little village,” she says.

Triggiano grew up in Racine, where she graduated from St. Catherine’s High School. Trim and bespectacled, she could pass for one of those pioneering activist nuns from the 1960s who traded their black habits for street clothes, making the world their cloister as they went forth to preach the gospel with their lives.

Milwaukee County Circuit Court judges must rotate through various branches: felony, misdemeanor, civil court and so on. Triggiano is on her second tour of duty in Children’s Court, having started there as a fledgling judge in 2004. The first time she stayed for five years; judges usually rotate after three or four. When she finally had to rotate off, “I kind of kicked and screamed,” she says – a reaction out of line with her calm persona. “I really like Children’s Court. I like doing the work out here. It’s meaningful.”

That might make her a bit unusual among some of her colleagues.

“Up until recently, this was not the place judges necessarily wanted to come,” Triggiano says. They would write Children’s Court off as a thankless backwater, all social work instead of “real” law – or else hard, overloaded and miserable.

“But I think we’ve done some really good things here and statewide,” she says, “to raise the level of consciousness about what Children’s Court judges do and how important they are.”

For Triggiano, the work of Children’s Court isn’t simply punishing miscreant teens or rescuing abused or neglected children. “It’s about getting it right the first time,” she says. “About strengthening families and looking after the well-being of children.”

Getting it right, she says, may make the difference between helping children grow into stable adults or being the unwilling midwife to a new generation of abusive parents or chronic lawbreakers.

“It impacts society if we don’t get it right.”

Mary Triggiano, below, wants to raise the profile of the work the court is doing, including for the people who work there. “I call it my Horton Hears a Who project,” she says. “We need people to be Horton. We need people to understand, yes, we’re living on a dust speck, but we’re really an important piece of the justice-system puzzle out here.” Photo by Sara Stathas.
Mary Triggiano, below, wants to raise the profile of the work the court is doing, including for the people who work there. “I call it my Horton Hears a Who project,” she says. “We need people to be Horton. We need people to understand, yes, we’re living on a dust speck, but we’re really an important piece of the justice-system puzzle out here.” Photo by Sara Stathas.

Over the last few decades, trying to get it right has brought change to Children’s Court. Sometimes it’s been driven from outside: changing family structures, strains on society, escalating violence in juvenile crime. And sometimes it’s been driven from the inside: evolving theories about the roots and origins of juvenile crime, and about how to best remedy it. Milwaukee Police Assistant Chief James Harpole joined the Milwaukee Police Department in 1985 as juvenile crime was on the verge of escalating.

Harpole is tall and lean with thinning dark hair, an olive complexion and a manner of speaking that suggests years of postgraduate education. When he started, the department had a separate juvenile division, and part of what its officers did was steer families of arrested kids toward social services when they were appropriate.

The early 1990s saw a proliferating epidemic of crack cocaine combined with a surge in the population of adolescents.

“As the system became just overwhelmed and the violence escalated, it was more about getting these violent offenders through the system,” Harpole says. “There was a lot less focus on service provision” – in the police department, and in the system as a whole.

Then the department folded what had been its juvenile division into a new “sensitive crimes division” focusing on family and domestic violence, and sexual assault. “It was no longer the mechanism to refer families of kids to additional services that might help keep them out of more trouble,” Harpole says.

By the late 1990s, as violent crime intensified, the focus on homicide and guns on the street did as well. Since then, the city’s crime rates have generally fallen, despite a disturbing spike in violence in recent months. In the meantime, though, a new generation of youth crime has developed, more anarchic than previous ones.

“They’re basically leaderless crews, unlike the old gang structure,” says the assistant chief. Crews may be centered on the schools that the teenagers attend, but membership can shift rapidly from one group to another. Communicating by mobile phone and through social media, they’re also less visible. “We don’t see open-air drug markets like you saw at one time,” Harpole says.

Resources “haven’t kept pace with the needs,” Harpole adds – but at the same time, juvenile justice authorities haven’t surrendered to cynicism or despair. Instead, they’ve tried to work harder – and smarter.

In the last few years, these professionals have begun taking to heart an awareness about the role early-childhood trauma has in molding juvenile crime. Family dysfunction, parental drug abuse, violence and sexual abuse are common experiences for young people who get swept up in criminal activity. And while that may sound like a media cliché or blithe excuse-making, it represents a significant insight that advocates believe can produce dramatically better outcomes in dealing with not just children, but adults, too.

“Trauma-informed care” is the umbrella term for this philosophy. It’s an idea that came to Milwaukee less than 10 years ago, largely through SaintA, a non-sectarian nonprofit that handles child welfare case management and provides treatment for troubled kids. Along with many other agencies, its staff works closely with Children’s Court.

Trauma-informed care is the result of research that connected deep childhood trauma with certain persistent adult behaviors, such as addiction. Since 2008, SaintA has been building these principles into its work with children, according to SaintA’s executive vice president, Ann Leinfelder Grove. “The hallmark slogan of trauma-informed care,” she says, “is moving away from the perspective of, ‘What is wrong with you?’ and moving instead to a perspective of, ‘What has happened to you?’”

Trauma growing up can range from a parent’s alcohol or drug abuse to physical violence against children or partners. Brain scans and other biological research have shown just how people with those traumatic backgrounds come to respond to stress and anxiety in the present day, explains Tim Grove, SaintA’s chief clinical officer – and how everyday setbacks or challenges can amp that stress way up, interfering with memory, judgment and other faculties that might otherwise enable someone to negotiate difficult situations.

Since 2009, SaintA’s partnership with the Children’s Court has been teaching these concepts to judges, defense lawyers, prosecutors, police and others in the justice system. “We have seen a noted difference in the approach of judges in understanding the needs of the families before them,” says Leinfelder Grove.

For the cops and the courts, Harpole says, trauma-informed care can mean looking at “not just the kid who is in trouble with the law, but the family unit.”

El Tucker, left, and fellow officer Billie Ellis are part of the Juvenile Milwaukee Collaborative Offender Re-Entry Program, which places them in the role of family counselors as much as cops. Photo by Sara Stathas.
El Tucker, left, and fellow officer Billie Ellis are part of the Juvenile Milwaukee Collaborative Offender Re-Entry Program, which places them in the role of family counselors as much as cops. Photo by Sara Stathas.

One day in February, a Milwaukee Police patrolman named El Tucker makes some of his usual rounds around the city’s Northwest Side.

Tucker’s first name is actually a bit longer than that, but he goes by El – or by Officer Tucker. He’s got the build of a middleweight, keeps his hair in short, neat dreadlocks, and wraps it all in a quiet disposition. He is assigned to the department’s District 7, where he’s the face of a special grant-funded Juvenile Milwaukee Collaborative Offender Re-Entry Program. The program is operating in two of the department’s districts. It’s a bit like an amalgam of Officer Friendly, an extra probation officer and a social worker. Although it’s strictly a police department operation, the program works closely with some of the same social service agencies that work with kids through the Children’s Court.

Tucker and other officers in the program have developed lists of young people to whom they’re paying special attention. Some are home on supervision – the juvenile equivalent of probation – after having been through juvenile court or possibly having been sent for a year or more to a state juvenile facility on a judge’s order. Others have been arrested but haven’t gone to court yet.

On this school holiday, Tucker hopes to find some of the kids on his list at home. At Tremaine’s house, he checks the police department’s warrant list to make sure the 15-year-old isn’t wanted on any new offenses. There are none: a reassuring find.

A chubby, bubbly elementary school-aged girl – Tremaine’s sister – greets Tucker at the front door as though he were a cool older cousin. At the top of the stairs, Tremaine’s mother welcomes him up.

Tremaine isn’t home, his mother explains. The youth chose to visit his dad, who is trying to channel the young man’s interest in automobiles by giving him some lessons in mechanics and car repair.

She tells Tucker about her son’s latest report card, describes some innocuous post-detention ups and downs, and gives him Tremaine’s new cell phone number.

This extra attention from the officer has meant a lot to her, she explains. It was one thing when Tucker first visited, accompanying her son’s juvenile probation officer. But it was another when he came back.

“And then he came back again,” she says. “It’s a reminder to stay on the straight and narrow.”

His visit concluded, Tucker says goodbye and climbs back into his patrol car. “What this is about is building relationships,” he says as he pulls out of the cul-de-sac. “I’m not here to lock you up. But if you put yourself in that predicament, I’ll do that.”

These visits aren’t just about the kids with records, he adds. Siblings and acquaintances are also on his radar, as he and colleagues try to head off potential trouble that could draw them into the system, too.

His work includes connecting families with counseling and treatment programs for troubled kids. Tremaine is in a program at SaintA called Functional Family Therapy. Just the week before, Tucker helped another family connect with a counselor who does in-home family therapy. Not all visits are as upbeat, though. Some of the teens wind up back in the same sort of trouble that originally put them on the officer’s list.

Of another 15-year-old, Tucker says, his behavior has been “horrible.” The officer is as much concerned with the boy’s 11-year-old brother, who has no record yet, but shows signs of drifting in the same direction.

“I went over one day last week and had a talk with the younger brother regarding his older brother’s behavior, and the decisions he’s made, and how that’s going to affect him for the rest of his life,” Tucker says.

He might not know for some time what difference, if any, that conversation makes.

Word comes over the radio about a group of teens with a stolen car caught inside a vacant home. Tucker goes to the scene, concerned the group might include someone on his caseload. He’s mildly relieved to learn the answer is no.

He winds up transporting an 18-year-old member of the group back to District 7 headquarters on Fond du Lac Avenue for booking. Along the route, Tucker peppers his passenger with questions. The guy has “gotten off paper” – been released after a year of juvenile supervision the previous April.

He’s back in high school, and Tucker grills him about his plans for after graduation. The answers are vague and contradictory. He says he wants to learn to be a “technician” – but he uses the term loosely, equating it with carpentry a moment later. “So what kind of technician,” Tucker asks. “Plumber? Electrician?”

“Yeah, all of that,” the youth says.

Tucker looks again at the half-completed report on which he’s written the young man’s information and confirms his home address.

“You ain’t one of the Keefe Street Boys, are you?” the cop asks.

“No, no,” the youth replies.

“But you know what I’m talking about, right?” Tucker responds.

“Yeah, I know.”

The young man calls University of Wisconsin-Madison his “dream school,” and Tucker asks what his backup plan is if he doesn’t get in.

“College around here,” is the reply.

“Have you applied?”

The answer is no, and Tucker lays in – not harshly, but with just a slight edge of exasperation in his voice. “You need to get four or five applications out,” he says. “That way you get to choose.”

“Yeah, I know,” his rider says.

Back at District 7, Tucker hands his passenger over to a booking officer. “I know the routine,” the youth says.

“You know the routine?” Tucker says, with a slight shake of his head. “That’s bad.”

Back in the patrol car and on the way to another home visit, Tucker places a phone call. He gets Tremaine’s voicemail, wishes him a happy belated birthday, congratulates him about the report card, and asks Tremaine to call back.

Then it’s on to visit a teenage girl who is home “on the bracelet”: required to wear an electronic monitoring device to ensure she only goes where permitted – mainly home, school and her part-time job. She had gotten caught with a group in a stolen car, he recalls.

“She’s a real follower,” Tucker confides as he drives through the Northwest Side streets.

At her house, they talk. She wonders about her upcoming hearing.

“What do you hope happens?” Tucker asks her. That she gets to come home without the bracelet, she says.

“Yeah, so you can run buck wild again!”

She protests. “I’m 17. I’m not going to be doing that.” She’s recently had a birthday, it turns out.

“Seventeen. You got that adult thing. They got you thinking on that, huh?” Tucker says. “That’s serious business. Happy 17th. Something else go down, no more kiddieland – you go Downtown!” He puts a circus barker’s emphasis on that last word.

The girl is slender and pretty, her voice soft. She gives a difficult-to-follow account about a fight with other girls at school that resulted in her temporary suspension. She proclaims her innocence in the whole matter, and Tucker listens poker-faced.

Their conversation continues, and something else emerges: The teenage girl isn’t just an offender. She’s also a victim.

Sometime back, Tucker explains later, she was kidnapped by a group of traffickers. She might not have realized at first what was happening, he says; she “kind of knew” the guys and might have gone with them voluntarily, assuming everyone was going to a party.

But there’s no doubt about how it ended. “She was held against her will,” Tucker says, and beaten so badly, “you couldn’t even recognize her.”

As he drives away from the house, Tucker mulls her situation. “Nobody deserves what she got,” he says. Yet there are times when she overlooks her own safety. “She’s very, very much into social media,” he says. “She knows everybody and everybody knows her.” He pauses. “She’s got some issues. If she could stop with Facebook and stay focused on the job and school, she’d be a lot better off.”

Tucker’s own upbringing was in these same central city neighborhoods now on his beat. But his family circumstances were far from the kind he encounters among many of these young people.

“My parents have been married 47 years,” he says. “They’re still together. I didn’t really have much leeway. My dad kept me busy – me and my brother.”

His father was a factory worker in a brewery, his mother a registered nurse. His younger brother works for We Energies, and his sister’s a dentist. “I had a safe home,” Tucker says. “You’ve got to be willing to make sacrifices if you want your kids to succeed in this life.”

Although the job he does now seems more like that of a counselor than a cop, Tucker doesn’t see that much distance between it and the work he signed up for eight years ago when he joined the force.

“In my opinion, as a police officer, you have to have some compassion,” he says. “You also can’t be naive to the fact that some of these kids are lost before they even get started.”


Juvenile criminal records are sealed and proceedings closed to the general public so youthful mistakes don’t haunt someone years later. Even for police and prosecutors who don’t work directly in the juvenile system, access is highly restricted, again to reduce stigma and ward off assumptions of guilt.

Yet with limited access has come problems. In December 2010, a 17-year-old girl, Jonoshia Alexander, was killed by another 17-year-old, Markus Evans, who shot her twice in the head with a shotgun after essentially picking her out at random. A subsequent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article detailed Evans’ extensive and escalating history of violence – which had not been met by escalating punishment. The newspaper did not definitively explain why, but quoted officials in the system, who pointed to poor communication and limited information among various agencies about his prior record.

State Sens. Jon Richards, a Democrat, and Alberta Darling, a Republican, co-authored a bill expanding access to juvenile records for law enforcement. At the new law’s signing ceremony with Gov. Scott Walker, Darling pointed to the Evans case to illustrate the need.

Another change making it easier for police to sooner learn about a youth they’ve arrested has come in a police department agreement with Milwaukee County on getting info from Children’s Court itself.

In the past, Milwaukee cops who wanted to know whether a teen in police custody was already in the Children’s Court system had to call the court during regular hours and ask. If the call went unanswered – as it often did – they might have to release the youth, says Capt. Peter Pierce, who heads the Milwaukee Police Department Office of Community Outreach and Education. The new agreement grants police a regular list of people on juvenile probation, which officers can check when they make an arrest.

Greater collaboration has been one of the products of a task force established by the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission, led by epidemiologist Mallory O’Brien. The commission’s juvenile justice task force drew on expertise from the county’s juvenile detention and delinquency office, the DA’s office, the police department, the state public defender’s office and social service agencies.

In 2012, the group advanced a list of some 20 recommendations, urging more sharing of information as well as practices such as ongoing reviews of juveniles who were chronic repeat offenders.

“You could see some early predictors that they were going to end up in a bad place or a bad way,” O’Brien says.

One recommendation almost didn’t make it on the list. Why bother, said panel members. It’s never going to happen.

The recommendation: that Milwaukee County should think seriously about relocating Children’s Court somewhere Downtown.

Moving the court closer to the rest of the justice system can help all the different elements work more closely together, says O’Brien. But it also offers a chance to better engage families with the Children’s Court, at a time when the family’s role in getting kids out of trouble – or preventing entry into it – has become central to the court’s work. “It’s hard for them to get out there,” O’Brien says.

Access to records just scratches the surface. Even simple geography can make it more challenging for police to retrieve information about a juvenile under arrest. Has the arrested juvenile been under protection because of neglect? Have there been school-related reports? “There’s a whole body of information all out at Children’s Court,” says DA Chisholm. Or what about situations in which an arrested child’s parent is also in court on criminal charges? Because the adult is being prosecuted at the county courthouse on Ninth Street, the connection could easily be overlooked.

Traditionally, says Judge Triggiano, the Children’s Court has worked to keep children who must return to court before the same judge in hopes of improving continuity. Now, she says, the professionals are trying to make sure parents or entire families are part of that equation. But Triggiano would go further still. “I would probably build a team around what families need,” she says.

An attempt to do just that is Unified Family Drug Court, held weekly out at the Juvenile Justice Center. Created in 2011, the drug court is offered as an option for parents charged in abuse or neglect cases for whom alcohol or drug use is seen as a principal cause of their mistreatment of their children.

To take part, parents must be considered relatively safe, even if they have temporarily lost custody of their children. They sign a behavior contract that includes abstaining from drugs and alcohol – and requires random testing to make sure they’re keeping the bargain. They must stick with treatment and fulfill other requirements, such as counseling, job training or work. Those who make it through the program can get their children back.

They show up for court sessions on Friday afternoons, where Triggiano – in business clothes, not a judge’s robe – greets them with a smile. To two program newcomers, she says, “Rule No. 1 is honesty. We’re here to help you, but we expect you to be honest with us. Please tell us what you need. There’s a lot of years of experience in here.”

Also in the courtroom are representatives of a half-dozen or more social service agencies now working with these parents and who stand with their clients to offer their thoughts. “This is a family journey,” Triggiano tells an older man visiting with his adult daughter, who has signed on with the program. “And you’re part of the family.”

The defendants update the judge on their treatments. Spotty attendance at required treatment draws a firm admonition, as does one defendant’s failure to promptly return a phone call from one of her counselors. “We get really, really concerned when we can’t get ahold of you quickly,” the judge says. “We’re trained to think the worst.”

Triggiano believes the approach could be expanded in certain CHiPS and JiPS cases – but being in much closer quarters with the rest of the system would allow that to work more effectively.

Despite little public awareness, the idea of such a move has begun to gain traction.

Last year, the Milwaukee Bar Association sent a resolution to the Milwaukee County Board and the county executive, calling on them to move the court Downtown. Addressing the bar association in October, Chief Judge Jeffrey Kremers called it “bordering on unconscionable what we are doing to the families of children being processed through the facility in Tosa.”

Would it make a difference to families like Tremaine’s? “Absolutely!” says his mother. Where she and her children live, near Sherman Boulevard and Capitol Drive, there’s a choice of two bus routes that go Downtown without having to change buses, and there are departures roughly every 15 minutes. To get out to the current location, “you have to take three different buses,” she says.

Yet there isn’t a consensus on how it might all come together. Nearly everyone agrees step No. 1 is to tear down the deteriorating county Public Safety Building that houses the offices of the sheriff and the DA. After that, opinions diverge: Triggiano and Chisholm each speak of a new facility that could bring together Children’s Court and many of the other agencies – some of which already share space out in the Wauwatosa building – under a single roof. “I would probably say take down the safety building, create a state-of-the-art center where we build it from what the families need up instead of what systems need,” Triggiano says. But who will pay for it? To Chisholm, the finances are the stubborn roadblock. Recent projects, like the new Sojourner Family Peace Center, have used private and public funds. But a new government building “by default” must rely strictly on public money, Chisholm says. “That’s where the conversation stops. I can’t imagine a way it could be funded privately.”

Kremers told the bar association last fall, “We need to find a way forward to get this done with the same urgency we are told is needed for a new Bucks arena.” But in an interview, he suggests a more modest approach. Kremers favors building into the replacement safety building more space for offices now in the County Courthouse, and perhaps some criminal courtrooms as well. That would free up space in the courthouse for Children’s Court to return, he reasons.

“Spending money to put a brand new Children’s Court center Downtown – that’s a pretty hard sell for the taxpayer,” Kremers says. “What do we need that for if we’ve got room in this building?”

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele tells Milwaukee Magazine in a prepared statement, “I absolutely agree that there is value in moving Children’s Court to a more strategic location and potentially Downtown.” It’s a move he says the county is considering as a part of its consolidated facilities plan that “seeks to make more efficient use of current county space” like the courthouse, the Public Safety Building and others. The goal, he says, is to realize cost savings “which can be redirected to providing services, such as juvenile justice services.” Although some county buildings and property have been considered under this plan, Abele offered up no timeline for any move of the Children’s Court.

Several people watching this closely have other ideas about how to pay for it: They speculate that rising land values at the Milwaukee County Grounds could help fund the relocation by selling the current Children’s Court property to private developers.

It seems likely, however, that the current property would provide no more than a small down payment on a project that could cost many millions, depending on how ambitious it turned out to be.

Bill Drew, the former executive director of the Milwaukee County Research Park, speculates the 15 or so acres of land on which the Children’s Court building is located could go for perhaps $150,000 an acre if it was added to the research park property, and about $300,000 if it was sold as a standalone parcel to outside developers – perhaps yielding somewhere between $2.25 million and $4.5 million. But Drew points out that would be before the cost of razing the building; what that would be is anyone’s guess, but he says $1 million is not unrealistic.

County Board member Gerry Broderick – who is expected to step down when his current term expires next year – considers the idea of moving the court promising. He points out, though, that it’s still far from fully developed, even among those who are most outspoken about it.

Broderick also considers the development priorities that have taken center stage to be far out of line with the community’s needs. “We should not be giving out public assistance to billionaires for an arena that they could afford without any trouble at all,” he says.

But Broderick, a former Milwaukee cop, is pessimistic that any serious attention will be paid to moving the court anytime soon – however meritorious it might be. As he admits, it’s likely there will be a new Downtown court, but for basketball players.

Erik Gunn has been a contributing writer and editor to Milwaukee Magazine for 20 years. His most recent feature explored the aftermath of the Act 10 legislation. Write to him at

Hear more about the story from author Erik Gunn on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” here.

‘Trial Separation’ appears in the July 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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Milwaukee Magazine Contributing Editor Erik Gunn has written for the magazine since 1995. He started covering the media in 2006, writing the award-winning column Pressroom and now its online successor, Pressroom Buzz. Check back regularly for the latest news and commentary of the workings of the news business in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.