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Kids in Crisis: Trying to improve Michigan's complicated system

Cole Williams poses for a portrait in Grand Rapids. He's been an advocate for reforming Michigan's juvenile justice system ever since his teenage son's experience. (Photo: Katy Batdorff, special to the Record-Eagle)
Katy Batdorff, special to the Record-Eagle
Cole Williams poses for a portrait in Grand Rapids. He's been an advocate for reforming Michigan's juvenile justice system ever since his teenage son's experience. (Photo: Katy Batdorff, special to the Record-Eagle)

Cole Williams never thought he would be an advocate for the juvenile justice system, until his son was arrested by the Grand Rapids Police Department 12 years ago.


This is the third and final installment in our series "Kids in Crisis," on Michigan's juvenile justice system, co-reported by IPR News and the Traverse City Record-Eagle. Read and hear the entire series here.


Sitting in his home office in Grand Rapids, the blue light of Williams' computer screen illuminated his face.

“When it comes to the juvenile justice system, I didn’t know much about the system until my son was incarcerated,” Williams told IPR News and the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

Cole’s son was 13 years old at the time of his first arrest. Cole said that he had a history of explosive anger that would sometimes result in violence. He describes his son’s mental illness diagnoses as “all of these different acronyms.”

This episodic anger was a result of trauma that he endured in the younger years of his life before he was adopted by Cole from the mental health foster care system in Michigan.

Williams said his intention in calling the police that day was to help his son get the services he needed, and give them time to de-escalate the situation.

Instead, the next day, he said he found himself plugging in the address for the Grand Rapids Juvenile Detention Facility to visit his son.

“Here I was, thrust into this system, and I had no control over what was happening,” Cole said.

Cole Williams is part of a state task force charged with recommending how to reform Michigan's juvenile justice system. (Katy Batdorff, special to the Traverse City Record-Eagle)
Katy Batdorff, special to the Traverse City Record-Eagle
Cole Williams is part of a state task force charged with recommending how to reform Michigan's juvenile justice system. (Photo: Katy Batdorff, special to the Traverse City Record-Eagle)

With a background in social work, Cole said that it became his mission to work as a translator for parents just entering the family court system, and the potential services they received, as well as offering classes to the kids within the Kent County Juvenile Detention Center starting in 2014.

His work propelled him into trying to make a change in the juvenile justice system in Michigan by joining Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Michigan Task Force for Juvenile Justice Reform last year.

Williams said his goal is to help change the system that confounds so many families in Michigan.

Read more of Williams' story at the Record-Eagle, and listen to his conversation with IPR above.

This story was co-reported by Elizabeth Brewer and Michael Livingston, in partnership with the Traverse City Record-Eagle and Report for America.

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.