Skip to Content

Search: {{$root.lsaSearchQuery.q}}, Page {{$}}

Reverb Effect Season 2, Episode 5 Transcript

Hayley Bowman: Childhood. A time of play, imagination, and make-believe. Of innocence and safety.  A distinct period of life signaled by markers, things designated “for kids!” Toys, clothes, even venues and restaurants designed with children (and profits) in mind. Entertainment, apps like Netflix and movie studios like Pixar, cater specifically to children, providing content deemed appropriate for developing minds. Growing bodies receive special support too, with snacks created “for kids” promising to not only entice with fun colors, shapes, and kid-friendly flavors, but to also deliver vitamins essential for proper growth and development. The world created “for kids” is soft, brightly-colored, safe, and fun.

But it’s also a constructed world, one concerned with financial bottom lines and appealing to consumers more than the health and safety of the actual kids themselves. And it’s an imagined world, one that has changed over time and is curated by adults with particular children in mind, which has made childhood exclusive and often illusive. Our understanding of childhood is not universal, and it doesn’t apply to everyone evenly. Who is considered a “child” is determined not just by age but also by class, gender, race, and circumstance. A twelve-year-old taking on odd jobs to help pay rent is not a child but an employee. Fifteen-year-old Britney Spears was not a child but a sex symbol. Seventeen-year-old Treyvon Martin was not a child but a “suspicious person.” Presumed criminal because he was Black.

Childhood is socially-constructed, a category that can be applied selectively— at certain times and for certain people. 

So, what makes someone “a child?” How do ideas about childhood intersect with our social notions of criminality and control and who deserves protection… or punishment? And how does our impulse to fit children into specific categories obscure our ability to understand them as complete human beings? 

Welcome to Season 2, Episode 5 of Reverb Effect,  a podcast brought to you by the University of Michigan Department of History. I’m your host, Hayley Bowman. In this episode, you’ll hear from Allie Goodman, a Ph.D. student in the Department of History. Her current research challenges notions of a distinct binary between punitive and rehabilitative tracks in the early years of Chicago’s Juvenile Court, asking questions about belonging and the role of institutions in home life. While she studies Progressive Era reform movements, she is an activist scholar invested in abolition. 

Allie Goodman: Michael sat in the intake room, waiting for his friend to arrive. 

Visitors to the St. Charles School for Boys were few and far between. By train, it could take three hours to travel the 40 miles from Chicago’s Loop to the small town from which the school took its name, and most boys at the school came from working class families that could hardly afford the trip, let alone to lose a full day’s wages. 

Michael didn’t expect family to visit. By then, his mother had passed and he was estranged from his father. Without other visitors, he was eager to help his new friend, sociologist and criminologist Clifford Shaw. Shaw had taken an interest in the boys at St. Charles, most of whom were 13-16 years old, and asked Michael to write down his life history sometime around 1930. Perhaps because he felt so alone and isolated from friends and what little family he had left, Michael wrote over 100 pages detailing his life experiences. 

Peering into the chasm of an indefinite sentence at this institution notorious for its military discipline and reported abuses, perhaps writing provided some kind of escape for Michael—maybe he hoped that his new friend, Shaw, might do something important with these stories. Maybe Michael could aid his efforts, if only in this small way. 

It’s true—Shaw did plan to use these collected stories to massively reform the juvenile justice system. And St. Charles did change as a result—with a new superintendent, it became less abusive. But the kinds of changes Shaw really hoped for wouldn’t come for another hundred years. 

Chicago was home to the nation’s first Juvenile Court, founded in 1899 in an attempt to fully separate incarcerated children from incarcerated adults. It was part of a broader reform effort that created a new network of interrelated institutions for children. Social scientists believed that cities were a breeding ground for criminal activity and bad morality—this theory is based in what’s called social ecology, or, to oversimplify, nurture over nature. In response, they developed the cottage model, which sought to remove children from their environments and place them in the country, where they might rehabilitate without the distractions and pulls of city life.

Today, we might think: how could isolating a child from their family, friends, and home possibly produce positive results? What were these reformers thinking? Well, they were responding to fifty years of failed juvenile justice policy. Reformers saw research that showed changing the location and form of incarceration might be more effective to rehabilitate children.

The cottage model takes its name from the form of the prison. Rather than a large building with cells, children were classified by age and size and then separated into one of several open-plan cottages, which looked more like colonial barracks, but boasted dorm-like facilities. It promised to recreate ideal family structures by providing each cottage with a state-appointed house mother and father. Reformers believed this would facilitate proper upbringing. Each cottage held anywhere between 30 and 50 boys.

Illinois opened the first cottage model institution—the St. Charles School for Boys—l in 1904 and supporters were excited.  It promised to create what they called a well-heeled youth: disciplined and properly raised. What it meant to be “well-heeled” was based on the prevailing scientific evidence of the day, alongside a middle class, white, Protestant understanding of what “proper” meant. “Proper,” in this case, is defined by class, race, and religion. The school was also marketed as a last resort for youth who committed what were considered the most egregious crimes—arson, rape and murder—or for boys like Michael who had already served time in jail without satisfactory results. 

In the first biennial report, the school’s superintendent wrote, 

William Pratt (for the school superintendent): “The adoption of the cottage system makes the family the unit of administration in the home life and in school and industrial training, and makes possible a degree of personal effort in meeting the individual needs of each boy not obtainable under the congregate method of management…” [1]

Allie Goodman: Boosters, people who lobbied and raised funds for the school, wanted to diverge from the congregate model of “management,” which might most closely be compared to well-known prisons like Attica or Auburn, because they saw the cottage model as a humane reform. Yet both systems relied on similar premises: enforced discipline and the logic that there was something wrong with these boys that needed to be rehabilitated. 

While trumpeted as a reform, it ultimately created one of the most brutal prisons in Illinois … for kids. Judges consciously used this particular institution as a threat, saying things like “if I see you in my courtroom again I’m sending you to St. Charles.” 

In his life history written for Clifford Shaw, Michael describes the abject depression he felt while institutionalized at St. Charles. His experience isn’t surprising or unique. St. Charles was riddled with accusations of abuse among youth and staff: financial abuse, sexual abuse, brutal beatings, and quid pro quo.  Guards and house parents were often appointed not because of their qualifications as advocates of incarcerated children, but because they were owed a political favor. 

Michael came to St. Charles by way of a jewelry robbery gone wrong. He and some buddies broke the storefront glass, took a few items, and tried to sell them. Police caught and arrested the boys and hauled Michael before a judge of Chicago’s juvenile court, who sentenced him to prison. Michael’s case appears open and shut. If we take this source at face value, we simply learn that Michael went to prison for theft. But would this story look the same from Michael’s perspective? How much of this narrative can be attributed to the way that it was produced, written at Shaw’s request and with his own research questions in mind? And how do we address this as historians? 

A few years ago, I encountered a collection of Life Histories at the Chicago Historical Society. This was amazing—a treasure trove of children talking about their own experiences, in their own words. This is a rare find. Children’s voices are often absent from archives both because children don’t leave as many records and because archives are curated so the few records that do exist may not make it in. 

But when I dug into the stories, they felt off balance. I noticed that all of the kids seemed hyper-focused on touch-points with authority figures, particularly social workers and police officers. One kid talked about officers taking him to the Juvenile Home—a jail—when the Juvenile Court deemed his mother unfit to care for her children. Another launched into detail about growing up in an orphanage, being beaten and harangued by nuns. Yet another recalled a friend who was beaten so badly by police that he died of related injuries in a cell overnight. Yet another writes pages and pages about running away from home to find work in the West, and being continuously arrested by officers aboard trains. This isn’t just a few stories. I found this in every story. Every story is about kids’ experiences with, specifically, policing and institutions. 

It turns out this “treasure trove” wasn’t quite what I initially thought it was. In the 1920s, social scientists crafted a social conception of crime and criminal responsibility—essentially that individuals commit crimes and bear responsibility based either on nature or nurture. They began to ask incarcerated children—whose capacity for responsibility was contested—to write down their life histories in their own words in an attempt to solve crime, using the social conception as a lens through which to understand their stories. However, because reformers were seeking answers about criminology and wanted the children to keep their timelines linear, they asked the kids to base their histories on their criminal records.

Thus, the stories are not self-driven. We can’t really say these were fully in the children’s own words because they’re shaped by an outside influence. However, these are the only records we really have of these kids’ voices, and we can’t just dismiss them either. Instead, this information should influence how we read and understand the sources. With this in mind, we can approach Michael’s story with a different understanding. 

Kieran Westphal (for Michael): “My parents were born in Warsaw Poland and came to the United States for a better life. They had friends and relatives and were getting along fine.” [2]

Allie Goodman: Michael begins his story in the same way that many of his peers do: he talks about where his parents were from. Very few of the kids say that their parents were born in the United States and most of them list their ethnicity, regardless of nativity. In a lot of ways, this points to a mix of police criminalizing both ethnicity and space by hyper-policing immigrant neighborhoods.

Kieran Westphal (for Michael): “The first time I stole was out of my mother’s pocket book. I was small then and didn’t know just what I was doing.” 

Allie Goodman: This reads like a response to a question, which it probably was—Shaw likely asked him if he could remember the first time he stole. This is the second key trope of these histories.

Kieran Westphal (for Michael): “Father stayed out long at night. Mother often told us to grab father by the neck and beg him to stay home because father liked us and would do anything for us. [3] I liked my father at first. [4] We lived in a three story building on division street and paid 18 dillars rent. My father still went around looking for work. He landed a job finally at Deering, a factory not far away. He made 22 dollars and we went along very well.” [5]

Allie Goodman: At this point in the story, Michael was likely between ten and thirteen, so it’s not strange that he would be aware of the family’s financial situation, but he does seem to fixate on money and work as the only description of his father, whom we otherwise learn very little about over the course of this history. 

Kieran Westphal (for Michael): “My mother disliked [the neighborhood women] so we moved away to Noble street. My father lost his job and he was out of work for a long time. There were a lot of tough guys as you call them around my block. [6] Musty’s old man owns a candy store, a garage, a couple of houses, and Musty got everything he wanted and still he don’t stay home. If I had such a home I’d stay there and do everything to help my mother.” [7]

Allie Goodman: It seems like Michael fixated on his father’s inability to earn a living and contrasted it with his own ability to earn money through theft. He felt disappointed that his father was unable to provide the family with security and stability. A third important trope in the life histories: challenging relationships with parents or family members. 

Remember—social scientists were looking to nail down a “cause” for crime, so repetitive tropes attribute crimes and issues to individual people or family units. For example, Michael implies that his father likely had extramarital affairs and drank, something reformers could point to as a cause for Michael’s individual criminality. 

This section of the life history is labeled, “induction.” The reformer reading and labeling Michael’s story saw this as the moment when Michael joined a criminal life—when Michael became a criminal. This assessment makes a value judgement of Michael, saying that his choices are bad. The lens through which the story is told—his criminal history—confirms this assessment. This highlights an issue of confirmation bias on the part of reformers that points to individual people and their choices and away from other explanations, which could have been equally valid had the story been told using a different lens.  

Kieran Westphal (for Michael): “I stayed away from home for about two weeks when finally I was caught trying to steal a purse...I  waited for about two hours and then I was sent to the Juvenile Detention home where I stayed for two or three days and then I went to court...I asked [the judge] for another chance but she said she’d give me another chance to make good in the Chicago Parental School for Boys...I got along alright and served my three months and came home. But I couldn’t stay so I ran away again. I was sent to the Juvenile Detention home again and from there they sent me back to the Chicago Parental School.” [8]

Allie Goodman: The Chicago Parental School was like a jail for kids whom the state felt needed proper training or rehabilitation that they weren’t getting at home. It’s part of the network that included St. Charles on one end of the spectrum and the precursors to foster care on the other.

Kieran Westphal (for Michael): “We… came to a brick three-story building. We went in and the [parole officer] left me there saying here’s your boy. They had another little boy smaller than me who lived there too. He took [me] around the place and showed me everything… I didn’t stay there for very long. I went in the alley where there was a fire burning and lit up a piece of a butt which I smoked. I felt kind of lonesome or something so I hopped a truck and got off at Chicago and Ashland avenues where I walked to Fry and Holt street where I met...the rest of the bunch.” [9]

Allie Goodman: Despite court efforts to permanently separate Michael from his neighborhood through a foster system, Michael’s alienation and loneliness prompted him to leave. It’s worth noting that there appears to be no consent from Michael during this process and we don’t hear about his father, either. 

Throughout the life history, Michael devotes some time to his friends and interests. These moments of joy point to a dynamic, three-dimensional person that is sometimes difficult to locate within the recitation of his criminal history. 

Kieran Westphal (for Michael): “My team that I stuck up for are the Chicago Cubs, 1929 pennant winners. The Cubs were unable to win the world series because they were short on pitchers.” [10]

Allie Goodman: Some things are consistent. 

Soon, Michael was on the move again, selling goods to a woman down the street in exchange for a place to sleep. Shortly thereafter, Michael explains that he was arrested again and sent to “Juvenile”—a catchall term for the pre-trial detention facility.

While at the facility, a social worker pulled Michael aside to take him to see his mother at the hospital. Michael describes his mother as thin and pale. She wasn’t eating and had to be fed by a nurse. 

Kieran Westphal (for Michael): “I was crying but she said: Everything will be alright. I’ll get well and go to work and we’ll have the family together again. But I knew it wasn’t going to be that way.” 

Allie Goodman: Some time later, as he was walking in his neighborhood, the woman Michael sold goods to asked to see him. She handed him a newspaper with death notices. 

Kieran Westphal (for Michael): “I looked at it and I said what’s the matter? And she pointed to a little piece of words. I looked at it and read my mother’s name and soon as I saw that I dropped the paper and stood there as if struck dumb.” 

Allie Goodman: Shocked, Michael began to walk away before getting into a car with his father, who inexplicably pulls up beside him. The two of them went to a friend’s house, where Michael borrowed a suit for the funeral. [11]

Of the 101 pages in this life history, this is the only page that contains no description of criminal activity or touchpoints with municipal authority figures. This is a pivotal, defining moment in Michael’s life. But there’s no follow-up. We learn about the fates of Michael’s sisters, who were eventually placed in foster homes; Michael’s continued issues living with his father; and that Michael eventually ended up, again, living on the streets with friends. 

Why was Michael’s fate so different than those of his sisters? While it’s difficult to speculate about exact reasons, this story does seem to comport with gendered assumptions about criminality and responsibility. Who might be “saved” through institutionalization—and what institutions adolescents ought to go to—was often a response to the sex of the child in question. Who did not need “saving” and might simply be brought home by police may be most directly linked to gender, race, ethnicity, and class.

The events of Michael’s life continued, ticking forward, encounter by encounter, toward his eventual sentencing to St. Charles. First, Michael and some friends stole a car battery. They tried to sell it, but a guy in a brown suit nabbed Michael and a friend. 

Kieran Westphal (for Michael): “He said cmon I’ll show you what he called the Racine avenue station and we’re soon riding in the patty wagon on our way to the hoosegow. We arrived at the station and he took us in the lieutenant's office and questioned us. He kicked the shit out of [us] and I gave him a phoney address.” [12]

Allie Goodman: The court tried placing out again, but Michael hitched a ride back to his old neighborhood and started going around with his old buddies.

Kieran Westphal (for Michael): “We ran down the alley and one copper ran and fired his gun three times in succession. I don’t know whether he shot at us or if he tried to scare us into stopping for him.” [13]

Allie Goodman: Michael doesn’t describe fear or adrenaline or any other emotion we might expect after a pursuit on foot. Instead, the encounter is simply one stone on the garden path that leads to St. Charles.

Kieran Westphal (for Michael): “One time I ran away from Cook County where I stayed for two weeks. I ran away July 3rd and was around my neighborhood on July 4th having a lot of fun. Next day, me [and some guys] bust a jewelry store window without an alarm and got away with it.  But two weeks later the cops picked all of us up and took us over to Racine avenue station. They didn't take enough time to find out that I ran away from Cook County. We all went to Juvenile. I went to court on Friday and was sentenced to St. Charles School for Boys. I have no home at the present and I am here sixteen months. I have little hopes of getting paroled as no one has any interest in me. I wrote this story because I was asked to write. I also wrote this story for a man that I know and can trust even if we have been acquainted for a short time. In fact, I don’t think nothing of my own life. Nobody cares for me and I’m just living in this world.” 

Allie Goodman: This is where Michael’s story ends. I don’t know what happened to him, or anything about his life past that moment. Shaw took this life history while Michael was at St. Charles but didn’t follow up about his afterlife, a mark of the questions researchers were most interested in. The researchers wanted to know how kids wound up in St. Charles, so their afterlives didn’t matter much to them. It’s an individuation of criminal responsibility that asks: Why are you a criminal? And how can we prevent other children from following the same path? 

Labeling Michael a “criminal” and asking how he became a criminal—it’s begging the claim. The conclusion researchers hoped to prove is validated within the research question. And they used these stories to create policy, meaning they created policy based on caricatures rather than full people.

And, perhaps more importantly, these kinds of labeling practices individuate responsibility, placing reformers in a position to “fix” individual kids without acknowledging or tackling the more expensive and time consuming systemic issues like homelessness, joblessness, wealth distribution, and healthcare, including mental health and addiction. This way of handling social problems allowed politicians and reformers to appear responsive to these issues, whether or not the policies they created based on these documents actually were. 

In July 2020, amidst a swell of activism and uprising, the Governor of Illinois, Governor JB Pritzker, promised to finally implement “holistic and systemic change” in the Illinois juvenile justice system. [14]

Governor Pritzker: “The facilities that should, in theory, be nurturing children and rehabilitating them in their adolescence instead exacerbate trauma, interfere with their family relationships and create a culture of instability and violence.

Allie Goodman: When Governor Pritzker talks about antiquated social theory, he’s talking about the cottage model. [15]

Governor Pritzker: “An essential tenet of good government is recognizing the need to change the laws and the systems that have failed the people that they serve and it means doing everything in our power to reverse the tide. It’s in that spirit that Lieutenant Governor Stratton, DJJ director Heidi Mueller, and I are here today to announce the 21st-Century Transformative Model, a nation-leading restorative justice plan that will completely overhaul the state’s juvenile justice system in the next four years. We’re transforming our juvenile justice system from one that disproportionately harms Black youth, families, and communities to one that supports all Illinois youth, families, and communities more equitably.”

Allie Goodman: The plan would attempt to prevent the kind of alienation boys like Michael described by detaining them closer to home. By July 2020 when he announced the plan, the number of incarcerated youth had already dropped from over 292 when he took office in 2019 to 97, [16] a result of investment in intervention programs and wraparound services. 

This is the kind of plan that uses the right buzzwords—“rehabilitation,” “bright,” “child-centered,” “equity,” and “community based.” It’s the kind of plan that you want to root for. And promising wraparound services, therapy, and victim supports are all crucial departures from punishment-minded rhetoric that we’ve gotten so used to. But does the logic of this plan ask and answer the right questions? He talks about decarceting juvenile facilities, but these same facilities will be used to incarcerate adults because, as the governor explains, Illinois is ending contracts with private prisons. Governor Pritzker talks later about funding training programs for incarcerated adults so that they have “the skills to get a job when they come home.” [17] But he doesn’t talk about discriminatory hiring practices or required disclosures. 

Then, on February 22, 2021, Governor Pritzker signed a bill ending cash bail in Illinois by January 1, 2023. Perhaps lost in the fervor of a news cycle about insurrection and white supremacy, we missed a moment to herald the leadership of activist groups like Black Lives Matter. The same bill will create a better system statewide to track misconduct among police officers and decertify those officers who commit misconduct. 

These changes are important steps forward. But they still fall back on prisons and jails as an answer to social problems. Study after study shows that there’s no correlation between decreased crime rates—which is a problematic metric in and of itself—and incarceration. So while Governor Pritzker asserts that the DJJ hasn’t yet achieved its goals but can with this new model, we have to ask, what is the goal of this system? Who is that goal for?

Adopting a reformist kind of language—when we use euphemisms like “dormitories” or “schools” or speak broadly about goals without naming them—draws false comparisons, a distraction from what’s really happening. When Governor Prtizker said he wanted to detain kids closer to home in dorm-like facilities, he brought the focus to the first half of the sentence—what we call these facilities and their location—instead of the latter half—the fact that we’re imprisoning children. 

Shifting the focus makes incarceration seem natural, one of the reasons why we don’t know much about Michael beyond institutionalization and touch points with authority. Segmenting society by naturalizing incarceration creates alienation that allows people who feel that they’re unimpacted by incarceration—though the reach is broader than most think—to uncritically view others as individuals in a vacuum when of course we live in a deeply entwined society. 

And when we view ourselves in a society as opposed to a group of individuals living near each other, we might be encouraged to ask different questions and explore different explanations. The question isn’t how humane child prisons should be. The question is bigger and more abstract: how do we shift the social, economic, and legal structures of our society to prevent the kinds of alienation and abuse that Michael experienced? How do we create a system that values all human life? It’s a multigenerational process, but we can see the seeds of progress taking root right now as people question the cultural reverence for police. New pathways may not look like the crime bills of generations past. And they won’t be as simple as slapping a new coat of paint on the walls. 

Hayley Bowman: Thank you so much for joining us, and a special thank you to our segment producer for this episode, Allie Goodman. Another thank you to voice actors in order of appearance, William Pratt  and Kieran Westphal. Our editorial board is Professor Melanie Tenelien, Taylor Sims, Christopher DeCou, and Arielle Gordon. Our production team is executive producer Gregory Parker, and I’m your season producer, Hayley Bowman. I hope you’ll join us for our next episode, for more stories on how the past reverberates in the present. This is Reverb Effect.



[1] Illinois., “Biennial Report of the St. Charles Home for Boys at St. Charles, Illinois.,” 1904, 10.

[2] “Life History,” Box 52, Folder 11.4, Institute for Juvenile Research Collection (Ill.), Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois, 1.

[3] “Life History,” Institute for Juvenile Research Collection (Ill.), Chicago History Museum, 4.

[4] “Life History,” Institute for Juvenile Research Collection (Ill.), Chicago History Museum, 5.

[5] “Life History,” Institute for Juvenile Research Collection (Ill.), Chicago History Museum, 6.

[6] “Life History,” Institute for Juvenile Research Collection (Ill.), Chicago History Museum, 9.

[7] “Life History,” Institute for Juvenile Research Collection (Ill.), Chicago History Museum, 26.

[8]  “Life History,” Institute for Juvenile Research Collection (Ill.), Chicago History Museum, 18.

[9]  “Life History,” Institute for Juvenile Research Collection (Ill.), Chicago History Museum, 31.

[10]  “Life History,” Institute for Juvenile Research Collection (Ill.), Chicago History Museum, 81.

[11]  “Life History,” Institute for Juvenile Research Collection (Ill.), Chicago History Museum, 42.

[12]  “Life History,” Institute for Juvenile Research Collection (Ill.), Chicago History Museum, 51.

[13]  “Life History,” Institute for Juvenile Research Collection (Ill.), Chicago History Museum, 87.

[14]  WQAD News 8, Watch Live: Pritzker Holds Briefing on Juvenile Justice at 11 a.m., 2020, 25:17-25:34,

[15] WQAD News 8, Pritzker Holds Briefing on Juvenile Justice, 26:19-27:40.

[16] Jamie Munks, “Gov. J.B. Pritzker Lays out Plan to Overhaul State’s Juvenile Justice System, Shift to Smaller, ‘Community-Based’ Regional Facilities,”, accessed March 10, 2021, 

[17] WQAD News 8, Pritzker Holds Briefing on Juvenile Justice, 31:00-31:10.


Recommended Readings

Tera Agyepong, The Criminalization of Black Children: Race, Gender, and Delinquency in Chicago’s Juvenile Justice System, 1899-1945

Megan Birk, Fostering on the Farm: Child Placement in the Rural Midwest

Miroslava Chavez-Garcia, States of Delinquency: Race and Science in the Making of California’s Juvenile Justice System

Kyle Ciani, Choosing to Care: A Century of Childcare and Social Reform in San Diego, 1850-1950

Nan Enstad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Class Women, Popular Culture and Labor Politics at the Turn of the 20th Century

Linda Gordon, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction

Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity

Michelle Mitchell, Righteous Propagation

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America

Mary Odem, Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920

Jessica Pliley, Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI

David Tanenhaus, Juvenile Justice in the Making

Michael Wilrich, City of Courts: Socializing Justice in Progressive Era Chicago