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Meet the Fellows: Donna McHenry

March 11, 2015
Zoe Schein

juvenile-justice-reform_Donna-McHenryRecently, we spoke with Donna McHenry, Systems Integration Coordinator at the Maricopa County Juvenile Probation Department. Donna is a fellow in NJJN's Youth Justice Leadership Institute, a year-long program that aims to create a more effective foundation for the juvenile justice reform movement by developing a strong base of well-trained and well-prepared advocates and organizers who reflect the communities most affected by juvenile justice system practices and policies.

What motivates you to work in juvenile justice reform?

I‘ve worked with young people since I was in high school. Here in Arizona, I grew up in the ‘hood, so what’s always been strange to me is that people would just ignore things that seem to be such obvious ills in our community.  I remember in high school losing so many friends to the drug and gang wars in the late 80s and early 90s. We went to school as if nothing was happening.  We weren’t even talking about it—it was as if it didn’t happen.

I remember one day our English teacher gave us a writing assignment, and I wrote about a mother who was trying to raise her son in an environment like the one I grew up in. At the end she loses him.  Reading it in front of my class caused all of us to start opening up about our experiences related to the story. Our teacher was just overwhelmed—she didn’t know what we were going through. That launched my activism. I turned that piece into a monologue and took it on the road doing presentations with the Mothers Against Gangs (MAG) organization. We wanted to share the experience, but also get answers to the questions the mother ask in the monologue, “How do we change the situations of today? Our children are dying day after day.  Who is here with enough strength to guide them the right way? Our cries have been loud, but have they been heard?” 

Once I began working to change the situation for children growing up in my community, I began to understand the notions of institutions and systems. When I first started, the scope of my work was small: I wanted to open a community center. Then I learned about regulations, evaluation, and impacts. My scope grew and I wanted to go around and support community centers to improve and address the needs of their communities. I wanted to be a part of a larger discussion to make things better for our community.  So I went from being a student with a monologue, to now a staff member in the County Manager’s Office for the 4th largest county in the US.

Fellows in the Institute are expected to complete a year-long advocacy project. Can you tell me about your project?

I’m working with Maricopa County Juvenile Probation Department's partnership with the Annie C. Casey Foundation to implement the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI).  I co-chair the Alternatives to Detention Workgroup. The overall goal is to maximize youth success while in non-secure alternatives and eliminate inappropriate or unnecessary use of secure detention. 

Our first action was to review the data on youth who were being brought into the detention facilities.  After reviewing the data, we found a significant number of youth were brought to detention on domestic violence-related referrals. Though youth were brought to detention, a significant number of them did not meet the criteria to stay in detention and were immediately released. Of the youth who were detained, many were released within 24 hours. When we searched for community resources to support these populations, we did not have success finding anything. Our community stakeholders did not have an understanding of adolescent domestic violence. Most would direct us to teen dating violence programs.  Based on this information, I’m leading a team to work with one of Arizona’s coalitions to develop an adolescent family violence training to raise awareness among judges, parole officers and stakeholders. In addition, my team has mapped the case flow for domestic violence referrals. We are working to address the policies and procedures that lead youth into detention instead of lower levels of care and supports in the community. By raising awareness and addressing procedures, I believe we will have a better understanding of how to support youth and the families, and prevent young people from coming into the system.

Why do you think the Youth Justice Leadership Institute is important?

One of the big reasons I wanted to participate was to learn how to navigate systems where the leadership didn’t look like me and may not share my perspectives. I want to learn how I can support the county in addressing race and ethnic disparities in the systems they are charged with funding and maintaining. Within the county government, there is not a large number of people of color in positions that can provide me with coaching or support. It’s hard to bring up the subject of race without people feeling as though they’re being attacked and called racist.  

I serve as the systems integration coordinator for the Maricopa County Justice System Planning and Information Department. My department is responsible for supporting the Board of Supervisors’ goals for public safety. I am the sole person in my department that addresses youth issues. I noticed a pattern whenever my department would give a report, it would omit race, but include other demographics. I would ask, “Why aren’t we including race and ethnicity?” I didn’t understand. I felt like I was between a rock and a hard place—I felt an obligation to drive this forward, but at the same time, why should I have the obligation of moving this forward, when it’s such a clear disparity? That’s everyone’s responsibility.

By participating in the Institute, I felt totally empowered, like I wasn’t the only one having the experiences I have. I’m in awe of the other fellows, for the work they do and what they have and will accomplish. As well as how open and supportive they are in helping me be the best that I can be. In addition, the fellowship is also a humbling process. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more vulnerable. By opening myself to the constructive guidance, I believe I will be more effective in my role. The Institute is important because it helped me improve my skills and develop resources to address race and ethnic disparities at an executive level in government. It also prepared me to be able to coach and mentor others who will address youth issues with the county in the future.

What do you do when you’re not advocating for youth justice reform?

I’m a foster mom, and I adore those kids. We have fun and we’re very silly. I enjoy my time with my kids and my wife, going camping, and I love doing service to help improve our community.


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