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CROWN POINT — Five boys being held at the Lake County Juvenile Detention Center listened intently Monday as Ivy Tech Community College instructor Alicia Hampton walked them through the basics of welding.

"I don't know what to do," said one boy, the first to try a welding simulator Hampton brought with her.

"I'm going to help you," Hampton said, placing a welding mask over his face. "I'm going to be right here with you."

Hampton eventually talked to all of the nearly 30 boys and girls being held Monday at the Juvenile Center as part of a new partnership between the county’s juvenile justice system and Ivy Tech.

Lake Juvenile Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak recently set a goal of helping 50 children obtain jobs by 2025 as part of the county's work with the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.

The initiative, developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, aims to promote positive youth development and enhance public safety while eliminating unnecessary or inappropriate use of secure detention. Lake County joined in 2009.

Earlier this summer, Stefaniak and his staff kicked off the latest phase of the initiative by asking probation officers to shift their focus. The judge wants his staff to focus on changing lives rather than simply enforcing rules, he said.

"When adults tell kids what they ought to be doing, kids more than likely are going to resist it and do what they want," he said. 

The system ends up with kids who face consequences that are too severe for breaking rules in ways that don't endanger the public, he said.

Jobs keep kids occupied, allow them to learn new skills, show them they must work for what they want, require them get along with people they may not like and teach discipline, Stefaniak said.

Thinking about the future

In another room, Stefaniak told a group of nine children and their parents when he realized he wanted to be a lawyer.

He was 18 years old, bought a case of beer and took several friends to a basketball game. It was snowy, he tapped the gas and the car started to slide. A police officer noticed and they all were arrested, he said.

He was the only one in the group who hired a lawyer to go to court with him, he said.

His friends pleaded guilty and were fined $50 and given 30 days of supervision. He pleaded guilty, while standing next to his lawyer, and was ordered to pay a fine.

He felt bad his friend received more punishment than him, but he realized what attorneys do for people, he said.

"I had my defining moment that I wanted to be one of those guys," he said. "I wanted to be a lawyer."

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Stefaniak told the children some people never have a defining moment like that, but it's OK. They still should be thinking about the future.

"People don't plan to fail," he said. "They fail to plan."

After the pep talk, Stefaniak sat down with his staff to conduct one-on-one interviews with several 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds flagged for doing well on probation and their parents. Each of the children filled out a job application and Work One survey about their career interest before their interviews.

Questions ranged from how the children got into trouble in the first place, their progress on probation and whether they were working. The biggest question was: what do you want to do with your life?

Stefaniak said this was the first time he and his staff have conducted such interviews. The goal was to give them some guide posts for what careers might be a good fit.

Several of the teens expressed an interest in attending a welding demonstration next Wednesday at Ivy Tech.

Tuition not a problem, dean says

Rob Jeffs, dean of the School of Advanced Manufacturing, Engineering and Applied Sciences at Ivy Tech’s Lake County campuses, said the college has provided job training for adults in the court system in other areas of the state.

"We're committed with the judge to make this happen," Jeffs said. "I think we know the shapes of the blocks and how they stack up. We're just not sure of the nuances."

Tuition should not be a problem for children who want to enroll in the welding classes, Jeffs said.

Foundations, community partners, and state and federal funding will cover the $2,000 to $2,500 cost per student for initial classes, equipment and fees, he said. Funds are available through different avenues for two groups of students: those who haven’t completed high school and those with a high school or equivalency diploma, he said.

"I don't think there's any bad people," Jeffs said. "There's just bad choices."

Back in the classroom at the Juvenile Center, Hampton asked for a show of hands from the boys.

All five tried the welding simulator, and she wanted to know how many were interested in a career in welding.

Four raised their hands.

“One still thinking?” Hampton asked, pointing at the fifth boy.

He shook his head yes, before Hampton gave them all high-fives.

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Lake County Courts and Social Justice Reporter

Sarah covers crime, federal courts and breaking news for The Times. She joined the paper in 2004 after graduating from Purdue University Calumet.