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Milwaukee County Has Challenges to Solve Before Removing Kids from Lincoln Hills

Lincoln Hills
Milwaukee County leaders are moving ahead with plans to get county kids out of Lincoln Hills

A federal grand jury is now involved in the investigation at Lincoln Hills, a juvenile detention facility in Irma, Wisconsin. There have been allegations of physical and sexual abuse as well as neglect.

While the investigation continues, Milwaukee County is making plans to transition its kids out of Lincoln Hills to facilities closer to home. There are a number of challenges the county faces in moving forward.

Lincoln Hills is about a three and half hour drive north of Milwaukee. It became Wisconsin’s main juvenile facility, after state leaders closed Ethan Allen here in southeastern Wisconsin in 2011.

Right now, about 130 Milwaukee County kids have been placed at Lincoln Hills.

Hector Colon, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, says that while county leaders are working with a sense of urgency to get its kids out of Lincoln Hills, it won’t happen as fast as some people want.

“The fact of the matter is these kids aren’t coming back overnight, they’re not coming back next week, it’s going to take months, even years,” Colon says.

He says there are a number of factors that have to be taken into consideration before bringing those kids back to this community. “What are the supportive services that these kids need to ensure their success, their safety, but also the safety of the community?” Colon says.

The county is exploring the option of further expanding the Milwaukee County Accountability Program, better known as MCAP, he says. It’s an alternative juvenile corrections program that houses 24 youth.

Colon says county leaders hope to add 44 more beds by January, but there are a number of moving pieces. For example, whether the state will license the facility as a detention center or a residential care facility.

“We would prefer as a residential care center. And the reason why we would want a residential care center, it would still be secure, which is what this community would want, but we’d be able to draw down federal funds that would help with the financial viability and sustainability of this approach. If it’s licensed as a detention facility, we lose all those revenue opportunities, which would make it really challenging,” Colon says.

There are other challenges that would come along with licensing the facility as a detention center. “There are a lot of architectural things that would need to be taken into consideration that might make it cost prohibitive,” he says.

Right now, the state sends Milwaukee County around $20 million a year in youth aides. The county uses a portion of that money to pay for its juveniles who enter the Department of Corrections.

About $14 million goes to Lincoln Hills, a sizeable chunk of its budget. So, if Milwaukee County removes its kids from Lincoln Hills, things there would have to change drastically, according to Jim Moser. He’s deputy director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.

“You’d have to downsize, but it’s not crazy to suggest that smaller is better. It’s not typically as cost efficient because you still have to heat the buildings. You still have to have a sort of base level of staffing, that kind of stuff,” Moser says.

Moser says he hopes the state takes this opportunity to rethink juvenile corrections as a whole. Both he and Colon insist smaller regional facilities are the way to go.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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