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Teens share stories about juvenile justice experience

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Juvenile Justice

Chances are the two teenagers are strangers and haven’t met even though they share a common bond through Indiana’s juvenile justice system.

Robert Neely, 16, and Trevor Bridger, 17, both live in Elkhart County and have their own tales of how it took incarceration to teach them a lesson. Both have been locked up in juvenile detention centers and spent time at the same Department of Correction facility in South Bend, ordered by the same juvenile Magistrate Deborah Domine. They’ve been out since January and are now hoping to complete their probations this year so they can leave the juvenile justice system behind.

Elkhart County

This is the story of two young men who’ve gone through a local system the same as thousands of juveniles; they are just two of the 82 youth sent to state-run juvenile facilities from Elkhart County, last year’s figures show. Both say detention taught them a lesson they might not have learned any other way. While both speak positively of the actions their juvenile magistrate took in helping them reform their lives, their intersecting storyline splits when it comes to their experiences with counsel as they maneuvered through the county’s court system.

Their stories come at a time when Indiana ranks fourth in the nation for the number of youth being locked up, the state’s juvenile justice system is lagging in what many call meaningful statewide reforms, and children’s access to quality representation varies significantly from county to county and sometimes within the same juvenile court system.

Starting over

TrevorNeely grew up on the east side of Chicago. His dad is deceased and his mom still lives in Chicago. But Neely came to northern Indiana about three years ago to start over and live with his older sister, who’s now 26 and has held guardianship for him for about seven years. Aside from Robert, she also takes care of their younger 14-year-old sister, two 10-year-old siblings, and her son and baby.

Neely has a history in both Indiana and Illinois’ social services systems and first made court appearances in Chicago when he was 9 or 10. But his first Indiana court appearance came a few years ago before Magistrate Domine on a stolen property charge.

Neely has been locked up in county juvenile detention about 10 times, ranging from about two weeks to four months, for various things including possession of stolen property and probation violations that came from drug use and running from foster homes. He has also been placed in group and foster homes after his sister declared he wasn’t listening or following rules, and that he was at times too defiant for her to handle.

“I’ve never been out for a whole five months since I’ve been here,” he said. “I’ve spent half my life being locked up.”

Magistrate Domine gave him a few chances, but his defiant attitude combined with drinking and marijuana use put a damper on his progress and led to a seven-month stint at the South Bend Juvenile Correctional Facility last year. Neely would have been one of the 126 juveniles the state reported being in the facility at the end of December. He was there from June 2007 to January 2008.

But since his release, Neely’s court-ordered family therapist Stephanie McIntosh with the Indiana Juvenile Justice Task Force sees the teenager as a success story. She works with the Family Support Services that provides an intensive homebased intervention designed as an alternative to out-of-home placement, offering treatment for youth and their families in the least restrictive environment within the community. McIntosh met with him periodically when he was locked up last year and then has been meeting weekly, sometimes going out to eat.

“Even thought it’s tough, rough, and it’s hard, there’s a lot of progress going on here,” she said.

His last court appearance was in early February after his DOC release a couple weeks earlier. He’s looking forward to his next hearing June 4 because he hopes to be released from probation; Neely hopes the court sees how he’s been clean for a year, is doing well in school, and is working to change his ways.

Eventually, he’d like to enroll in a technical school to do some welding work or some skill such as advertising or design, Neely said.

“I’ve been through it all, so now I’m trying not to go back to it because I’ve come from it,” he said. “I came up here to start over, but didn’t. Now I’m starting from scratch and doing it myself. I’m seeing where life takes me.”

Getting 'it'

A couple miles away from the pizzeria where Neely shares his story, Bridger sits at the kitchen table with his mom and court-ordered family caseworker to talk about his experiences in the system.

The teenager first entered the system a couple years ago – a sex-related charge was dismissed and he was charged on a residential entry offense. A February 2006 arrest for shoplifting led to a felony theft charge, and he was put on probation for a year. But Bridger said he kept hanging out with the wrong crowd, smoking marijuana, and failing drug tests last year.

His first probation violation was a result of school tardiness, Bridger said. Part of his probation also involved not regularly attending school and being late; he’d have to spend a day in juvenile detention if he was late to class. He racked up about eight tardy violations so he spent a cumulative five days in detention, he said.

After his release, he returned a month later for violation of house arrest. Two days after that release, Bridger said he was arrested after failing a drug test and that put him back in detention for a month before being sent to the DOC. Diversion program options didn’t work out, and he was sent to a South Bend juvenile facility from June 12, 2007, to Jan. 14, 2008.

“I just didn’t take it seriously. It was all a joke,” he said. “All my friends had been locked up, and I said I’d never be locked up. Next thing you know, I’m sitting in JC three times and then to the DOC.”

Bridger was supposed to be released in September and was counting down the days. However 15 days before his expected release he stole some food because he was hungry; that violated a DOC rule and cost him three additional months of detention.

“I stole a cookie. One cookie. A moment of sugary pleasure ... cost me three more months,” he said.

His new December release date also was postponed a month, but Bridger said the additional time taught him the most.

“That helped me more understand the consequences and what can happen. It taught me patience and helped me become more mature,” he said.

Bridger earned an honors GED in the state facility, and he’s now taking part-time college courses at Ivy Tech Community College and plans to enroll full time in the fall. He hopes that he’ll be released from probation by the end of this month.

“It happened for a reason and I finally got ‘it,’” he said, noting that DOC taught him a lesson. “You have to really want it, and you have to get ‘it.’ People who don’t, they need to go (to DOC) and experience it.”

Legal experiences

The pair’s experiences with legal counsel varied, though.

Neely said he sees his courtroom and legal experience as a positive one. He described his public defender as nice, fair, and always willing to discuss what was happening with the teenager before they entered the courtroom.

“He was nice and tried his best to not just keep me out of jail but to do better,” Neely said about his public defender.

The two would meet at the detention center before court to talk about the case and make sure Neely understood what would be happening in court, the teenager said. It seemed the attorney had reviewed his case before meeting. The attorney always seemed to be preparing him for the outcome, flat out telling him if there was no chance Neely would be able to go home or avoid jail. Before leaving court, the public defender would always ask Neely if there was anything he wanted to ask or say to the judge.

Magistrate Domine “was cool” because she gave Neely several chances before sending him to the DOC, he said. She always emphasized that what was happening in the home was important and played into his case, he said.

“Everyone helped me understand, but I was at the point where I took everything for granted,” the teenager said. “I was just focused on getting out and not what could happen in the future that might put me back in jail.”

McIntosh feels fortunate to have worked in the Elkhart County courts because they’re reasonable and fair, and different from what she’s experienced in other jurisdictions where detention alternatives vary and similar options don’t exist. That’s what helped Neely, she said.

He hasn’t thought about what he might change if he could altar the legal system, but the teenager said nothing stands out because he feels he was treated fairly by everyone involved.

“I can’t say there’s things I wouldn’t do, but I don’t know what I would do,” he said. “If I had a wand, I’d show you and I wouldn’t have been there in the first place.”

In contrast, Bridger and his mom, Sharon, said they’d have much to change with the system.

At first, Bridger stayed in juvenile detention about a month longer than expected because his court date kept getting pushed back. It would be rescheduled for the following Thursday, but then he would learn just before then that it was again continued for the next week.

Bridger’s original public defender would inform him of the change, but that’s about all, Bridger and his mom said. The lawyer didn’t seem briefed on anything.

Sharon Bridger said her repeated phone calls to the public defender often went unreturned, and she wasn’t able to get answers about her son’s case.

His mom was searching for a local residential drug rehab to use rather than having her son sent to the DOC or a 30-day commitment program, but she said that wasn’t available and her insurance wouldn’t pay for that type of program.

“There needs to be more creative options available,” she said.

She turned to other parents of youth in the juvenile justice system, and she said at one point someone told her what to expect from the legal system.

“I’ve talked to a lot of parents ... many seemed to feel that it didn’t really matter if you had an attorney or not,” Sharon Bridger said. “The judge operated a certain way and nothing would change that.”

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  1. Am I the only one who sees that the City is essentially giving away the MSA site AND giving millions to build new buildings on the site when this site would be the perfect place for the Justice Complex? Across from City-County, check; keeping it centrally located, check, etc. It's my understanding that the GM site must be purchased by the City from Motors Liquidation Company. STOP WASTING WHAT WE ALREADY HAVE AND OUR TAX DOLLARS! The Ballard Administration has not been known for it's common sense...never voted for him and never will!

  2. This guy sounds like the classic molester/manipulator.

  3. Louis D. Brandeis was born in 1856. At 9 years of age it would have been 1865. The Brandeis family did not own slaves. My source Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, by Melvin L. Urofsky.

  4. My name is Matthew Lucas Major, I recently went through a jury trial in Bloomington , In. It was the week of Feb 19-21. Although I have been incarcerated since August 5, 2014. The reason I 'am writing to you sir is on the 21 of February the jury came in with a very excessive and wrongful verdict of guilty on 6 child molesting charges against my daughter who was 9 at the time I was accused. I also had 2 other Felonies one of Intimidation and 1 of Sexual Vicarious Gratification. Judge Marc Kellam on the second day of trial gave me a not guilty on those 2 felonies. The jury was sent out during that time and when brought back Judge Kellam told them to not concern themselves with the 2 Felonies that he ruled on them. They were told to not let evidence they had already heard influence there verdicts. I never in my life touched any child sexually and definitely not with my own daughter. When I was arrested Detective Shawn Karr told me I would be convicted guilty just on my daughters word even without evidence. That's just what happened. my public defender did me so wrong he never once proved to the court and jury all the lies the child told, and Jeremy Noel my public defender could of proven the lies easily. The stories in Serenity's depositions and Forensic interview changed and were not consistent as Prosecutor Darcie Fawcett claimed they were. Yet my attorney never mentioned that. The facts that the child accused me of full penetration in her vagina and rectum was proven lies. Doctor Roberta Hibbard of Riley hospital in Indianapolis confirmed Serenity's hymen intact, no scars, no tearing, no signs of rape to her. Yet my attorney didn't use that knowledge . the DNA was all in my favor. I tell you I will spend my entire life in prison going through rape and beatings etc. even Judge Kellam abused his authority by telling the jurors to listen and believe what the prosecutors side in evidence like my daughters testimony. In one interview with the detectives my daughter got flustered with her mom and said on camera " I'm saying what you told me to mom"!! Yet Mr. Noel said nor did anything to even resemble a defense attorney. Judge Kellam allowed edited version of a taped conversation between the child and her mother. Also Judge Kellam allowed the Prosecutor too bring in to my case a knife found under my seat, the knife wasn't part of my case. She was allowed by my attorney and the judge to put a huge picture of it on the screen and huge picture of my naked privates in a full courtroom and open court. Ms. Fawcett says to jury see how easy Mr. Major could reach the knife and cut his Childs throat. Even though I had no weapons charge against these cases. This gave the jurors prejudice thought against me thinking I threatened her with that knife and how scared she would of been knowing i could get it and kill her. On my sentencing court March 19, 2014 my public defender told Judge Kellam he wish to resign from being my attorney and wished for the court to give me outside council to file a error to trial or appeal. We were denied. Now after openly knowing my public defender don't want to represent me he has to. Well when as parents we make our kids clean a room when they really don't wish to, well the child will but don't mean she will do a good job, that's where I'm at with Mr. Noel. please dont ignore mine and my families pleas for your help . we have all the legal proof you could need to prove Im innocent. Please dont make my spend years in prison innocent when you can fix this wrong. Im not saying Im a perfect man or that I was a perfect dad to my 2 children none of us are. Ive made some bad choices in life and I paid for them. But I didnt ever touch or rape my daughter . I love my children with all my heart. And now through needing attention and a ex-wife who told my granny several times she wish she could put me in prison to get me out of their lives. Well my ex finally accomplished her goal. Sad part is she is destroying our daughter with all this horrific lies and things she taught my daughter to say. My daughter will need therapist to ever hope for a chance of a normal life after what she had done to her by her mom and their side of the family. My daughter told everyone even on stand she had a dream months before i supposedly molested her in this dream I was molesting her and when I finally did it matched her dream perfectly. She admitted to watching movies about little girls being molested and watching U-Tube videos about child molesting all before it happened supposedly to her. Doesn't that sound very unusual that a non molested 9 yr old would need to know so much about being molested? The only reason I could think a 9 year old would need so much information is to be prepared to know what to say and be able to say how it felt what took place etc.. So when questioned by authorities she would be prepared. And there again sir if a parent is pre grooming a 9 year old child she would need intimate details . Like telling her daughter about a couple moles on my private area. The child admitted to sneaking my cell and looking many many times at nudes of me and my girlfriend even one where my penis was entering my girlfriends vagina. In that picture my moles are obvious. Yet when prosecutor showed everyone in court my privates and pictures of the moles she said the only way the child would know about them is if she saw them for herself. My attorney once again said nothing about the pictures my child saw. Or could a ex-wife be able to describe my moles to help her case against getting rid of me? I beg you help me. This is my very existence. Ive lost everything , a good job, a wonderful girlfriend, my freedom, but worse thing Ive lost is my children. They were my reason to get up every morning and strive to be better. The wonderful bond I had with my Serenity is gone. After this I would be afraid to even hug her for fear of what next can they do to me. I'm not afraid to tell you I sit here in this cell and try to hold back my tears. Everyone knows you cant show weakness in prison. My life has already been threatened here at Wabash Valley Prison. After only 3 days of arrival. I was tricked into signing a waiver now Im in G Block General Population with 6 child molesting felony charges. Mrs. Hart as a 18 year old I almost died hooked to machines in hospital almost 1 month and now I know that fear was childish compared to this . I cant help but put emotions in this, after all Mrs. Hart Im human and God help Me I never been more afraid in my life. I didnt hurt my little girl I didnt touch her sexually. As much as it shreds me and fills my mind what Im facing I worry more about my mom and granny because of their great love for me mam they are suffering so deeply. I aint done this things but my loved ones suffering right along beside me and If you take my case you will be in essence freeing them also. I sent momma this letter and asked her to email it to you. I'm scared I have been done so unjustly by our legal system and I need you to fix this and give me freedom. I ask you please don't just ignore my pleas. Here in America its nice to be able to trust our legal justice system, well they destroyed my and my loved ones trust in our justice system . And I'm trusting in You !!! My entire family is suffering this nightmare with me. My 77 year old granny had a stroke and isn't doing so well. My single mother that raised 3 kids alone is dying from Lupus and since my arrest has stayed so sick and weary. Our lives torn to peices by a government I was taught I could trust in. my momma has tried so many innocent project and wrongfully accused and cant get anywhere. please please help me. A quote from the late Nelson Mandela: To be free is not merely to cast off ones chains, But to live in a way that respects and enhances The Freedom Of Others. I have Faith in you and your clinic to cast my chains off and give me freedom I do deserve as a wrongfully accused Man, son, brother, father, friend. Matthew Major DOC# 246179 Cause # : 53c02-1308-FA-000779 God Bless you. Please contact me with your decision so I know you made a life changing decision for me , just please at least write me so I know you care enough about your citizens to respond to cries for your help. You can speak openly with my mother Charlotte Spain (828) 476-0406: 71 Lakeview Dr. Canton, NC 28716 Thank You Matthew Major I know yall get thousands of request and inmates claiming innocence, and each person who are innocent deserve to have organizations like yours willing to fight for them and I give yall so much Thanks and I thank God everyday yall are out there caring enough to help free the innocents. Since discovering firsthand how easily lives and families can be destroyed by Poor Defense attorneys not doing their job . And Prosecutors allowed to do as they please in court

  5. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

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