The Health Divide: Youth violence and trauma is an urgent story. But we should also lift up programs offering a brighter future.

Published on
July 10, 2023

The role of a judge can be a difficult one. They must listen to both sides, be fair and decide if a person should be incarcerated or set free with conditions. When dealing with children, the stakes are even higher. Judges weigh the child’s home stability, mental state, and the trauma they were exposed to. 

Before he was appointed Milwaukee Municipal Court Judge in 2002, Derek Mosley represented Wisconsin in over 1,000 criminal prosecutions as an assistant district attorney. He had seen it all during his time as a prosecutor for the city of Milwaukee for eight years before becoming a judge at 31, making him the youngest African American judge in the state’s history.  

As a judge, Mosley has seen how cycles of violence generate cycles of trauma. His story serves as a reminder of the overwhelming challenges and traumas facing kids in many communities, and an implicit call for better reporting about the programs and supports that might offer them a brighter future. 

Mosley, now the director of Marquette University Law School’s Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education, credits an incident early in his career involving an overwhelmed mother with helping him understand the needs of Black children and youth involved in the juvenile justice center. 

A young, black teenager in and out of trouble appeared before him in court. While others were doing wrong, he was a lookout but was never the main perpetrator. 

After court, the boy’s mother, concerned for her son’s safety, asked if Mosley could mentor her son. 

It was early in Mosley’s career. He got busy, and the request slipped his mind. 

The kid came back before Mosley a few weeks later, and his mother asked Mosley again.  

“She said, ‘Hey, you didn’t call me, and I really would like it if you could mentor my kid. He has no positive role models or Black men to look up to,’” Mosley said. 

Two weeks later, Mosley read in the newspaper that the boy had been murdered. The boy’s mother lost two sons to homicide. She moved South. 

 Mosley reached out to the woman before she moved, and she made him make her a promise. 

“She said you have to promise me as long as you live in this community that you will always be here for the kids of Milwaukee,” said Mosley, the father of two girls. 

It’s a lesson Mosley, who was born and raised in Chicago, never forgot and is part of why he continues giving back to youth at career days, as a mentor, and a youth advocate. He also restarted the MEDAL or Medicine, Engineering, Dentistry, Architecture, and Law program. 

The program introduces Milwaukee middle schoolers to Black professionals working in those five fields in the five-day program.

Not only do they get to see people who look like them in these fields, but they also get to experience what they do. During a visit to see a doctor, for example, the child gets to wear a white lab coat for the day, ask questions and pick the brains of these professionals. They get to see themselves in these professions. 

As journalists, we can do much more to highlight the statistics of youth violence, trauma, and its toll on their mental health. But we also need to tell stories of programs like MEDAL, so parents and students know these programs exist. 

When youth are exposed to daily violence and poverty, they must know that there are worlds that can open up beyond what they see. When Mosley was a judge, there were a half-dozen challenges the kids appearing before him would have typically experienced: 

  • High incidence of violence at home or in the neighborhood. 
  • Lack of supervision at home. Either the parents did not know how to supervise their child, or they gave up. Many times, at least one parent was incarcerated. 
  • Poor school performance. The child usually struggled with reading and was behind in school. 
  • Use of drugs like marijuana, alcohol, or opioids. 
  • Peer pressure. “If you show me your peers, I will show you your future,” Mosley said. 
  • Poverty. Poverty is an underlying factor in the number of young people appearing in court, whether it’s not having a safe home or neighborhood or lacking resources in a community. 

That’s a formidable set of obstacles, more than any single program could address. But if we want to change the trajectory of youth violence and trauma, Mosley said children must see that there is so much more to experience. 

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” said Mosley, who decided he wanted to become a lawyer after seeing actor Blair Underwood’s portrayal of an attorney on the television show L.A. Law. It was Mosley’s first time seeing a Black man play the role of an attorney, making him believe he could do it. 

As journalists, we must highlight the statistics of youth violence, trauma, and its toll on their mental health, but we must also tell stories on promising programs to support them, so parents and students know these programs exist. Beyond telling these stories, we should spend time with the youth and learn about them.  

I had an experience with this first hand when I worked on my project on a young man sentenced as an adult for a crime he committed at the age of 14. 

In my reporting for a special four-day series called “Life Corrections,” I asked the story’s subject, Marlin Dixon, about some of the programs he was involved in before he was incarcerated for his part in the mob beating death of Charlie Young Jr. at 14. Dixon said many programs failed to address issues he faced at home, like food insecurity.

He joined several after-school programs because they offered food and snacks. Most of the time, there was no food for him or his siblings at home. It’s hard for me not to wonder: Might his story have ended differently if he had a mentor like Mosley?