“Advocate” might not be a strong enough word to describe JauNae Hanger’s policy work on behalf of Indiana’s children. The founder of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana has been a leading voice calling for reforms that would improve the status of children in the juvenile justice system and in the state’s schools, and on reducing the school-to-prison pipeline, among others. She is heavily invested in CPLI’s mission: that every child has the opportunity to grow up in a supportive learning environment and transition to a healthy and successful adulthood.
How did you become involved in child advocacy?
I have always been drawn to public interest law. One of my first cases involved a 14-year-old girl who was waived to adult court, convicted as an adult and incarcerated at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Ultimately, we were successful in having her removed and placed in a juvenile facility until she was 21. The idea that a child as young as her, or even younger (a 12-year-old can be tried as an adult for murder in Indiana), could be tried as an adult was shocking to me. It became even more so once I had my own children. Children are not miniature adults. Cognitively, they are not capable of transacting the complexities of the adult system, and the experience is rife with threats to their safety and well-being. The more I learned as a young lawyer, the more involved I became and the more I wanted to devote my legal abilities to advocate for changes in the law to improve the lives of children and prevent children’s entry into our justice system.
If you hadn’t pursued a legal career, what do you imagine you might be doing?
I think I would still be working in the nonprofit sector in some kind of advocacy position. I have always been sensitive to injustice and inequalities and would still want to work to change practices that harm children and advance those that effectively address issues and improve outcomes for people.
What do you consider one or two of the most significant issues today regarding child welfare?
The trauma underlying so much of children’s behavior, and the inability of many adults, without considerable training, to understand that and help children build resilience, is a very significant issue for all of us. Instead, there are many policies and practices in place, such as zero tolerance in schools, that undermine efforts for children to succeed. School suspension rates have reached a level that most people would surely be surprised. Indiana data indicates that 1 in 10 children are suspended each year, and 1 in 5 African American children are suspended. Excessive suspensions and law enforcement involvement in our schools have contributed to mass incarceration and acute racial disparities in our justice system. Our state should pursue strategies that invest in people — such as social service supports, school counselors, school social workers, professional development for educators and mental health services. I just read that Indiana is in the lowest rung of states that provide access to mental health services to people who need them.
If you could change one law in Indiana, what would that be?
Wow, this is a tough question. I believe that no one law is the magic bullet. As a head of a nonprofit that is working to change laws, policies and practices to improve the lives of children, I must say choosing one is very tough. Even so, I believe that I would end the practice of trying any child under the age of 14 in the juvenile justice system (this is the practice in the rest of the world), or any individual under the age of 21 in our adult system. Thus, the juvenile justice system jurisdiction would span 14-21 years old, and we would focus on emerging adults between the ages of 21-24, providing age-appropriate rehabilitative services. Instead of using incarceration as a form of social control, I would invest in social services to help support children and adults to be successful.
What do you most like to do when you have free time?
Spend quality time with family and friends. I have two beautiful children, now grown, that I love to spend time with when they can. I have a new puppy (5 months old!), along with my old puppy (3 years old!) that are fun to take care of with my husband. Other than that, I love to travel, frequent art fairs and, over the last several years, spend hours developing a new craft: painting with acrylics.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Eat well (not a lot, but in a nourishing way), spend lots of time in the gym, keep yourself physically fit and let go — as I get older, I find myself focusing when I carry out a task, and letting go when I am not. This is a good thing!
What’s your best advice for someone who aspires to be a lawyer?
There is an awesome responsibility that one assumes when he or she becomes a lawyer. We should all understand that we are officers of the court and realize that much of what we do impacts not only our clients, but others.
Who is someone who mentored you, and what did you learn from them?
I would love to say I have had one mentor, but the reality is that I learn from lots of people, all the time. Many colleagues, lawyers and nonlawyers, have contributed to my development and professional growth. My husband, Richard Waples, has been a mainstay throughout it all. When I have a really tough issue or problem, I often consult with him first. He is a very supportive person in my life.
What’s a great piece of advice you received about being an effective advocate?
Be persistent, stay at the table, and understand that real change takes time and all impacted people need to be included in the process. Collaborative action is powerful.
Would you say there is more or less opportunity for issue advocacy today than a generation ago?
I don’t know if there is more or less, but given the polarization of views and tension in our country at this time, I think this is a watershed moment for all of us to involve ourselves in our community to help contribute to the betterment of our communities.•
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