The Courtroom on Camera

Q&A with Producer Karen Grau

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Karen Grau is an Emmy Award-winning producer and founder of Calamari Productions, a film company that documents the lives of at-risk youth and families. One of Calamari's recent projects, Lake County Juvenile Justice, premiered in July 2009 on MSNBC. The series explored juvenile justice from behind the scenes, chronicling the experiences of juveniles as they entered the system and went through the court process. In 2002, CWLA gave Grau its Anna Quindlen Award for Excellence in Journalism in Behalf of Children and Families. She talked with Children's Voice editor Emily Shenk about the connection between film and human services, and how media can be used for training and educational purposes.

Producer Karen Grau and Daniel, a juvenile offender, during filming at the Lake County Detention Center.

How did you become interested in documenting stories about at-risk youth?

I came to this subject matter almost accidentally. I started my career as a radio and television journalist in the late 1980s. During a break from journalism in 1995, I was assisting on a project that allowed me to go inside Indiana juvenile courts, specifically child abuse and neglect courts. At the time, the state was conducting a Court Improvement Program, studying Indiana's foster care cases and what in Indiana were called CHINS cases-- Children in Need of Services. I was assisting in that project, and it was the first time I'd ever been in a juvenile court.

I was completely taken aback by what I witnessed. Nothing in my years of journalism ever prepared me for the cases I saw that day. Some were horrific, and others were what I would now describe as typical, everyday cases that filter through juvenile courts. But I was completely transfixed. As a journalist, I just kept thinking to myself, there is so much that goes on behind these closed doors that people don't know about. I thought it would be very important to somehow do a documentary on these types of cases.

I had an instant compassion and empathy for the kids and families that I saw in those courts, and it stuck with me for a couple of years. I didn't act on my professional instincts right away, and I knew that taking cameras inside juvenile courts--especially child abuse and neglect courts--was impossible. Confidentiality laws prevent that from happening. But after almost three years, I was still thinking about those cases.

I understand that you were part of the first film crew granted access to film in juvenile courts. How did you get that access, and why did you feel it was so important to show what happened in those courts?

One day, out of the blue, I picked up the phone and called the counsel to the chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court. I said, 'This is going to sound crazy. I sat in this courtroom almost three years ago, and I've never forgotten those cases. I'm now back working as a journalist, and I have my own documentary production company, and I would love to do a documentary film highlighting these cases.' And that's how it all started.

Grau films in the Lake County Detention Center with teenagers Ruby and Kymyada.

I petitioned the justices of the Indiana Supreme Court for camera access inside juvenile courts. They eventually put the issue up for vote on whether or not they would allow this access. It was a split decision, but the majority ruled in favor of the project. I got final word in late 1998, and then a lot of meetings ensued after that. I had to work with the Indiana Judicial Qualifications Commission, and we discussed in-depth how the judges who would be participating could and should conduct themselves on camera, and what guidelines we would work under. Because we were setting a precedent, we started from scratch on how this would work. We drafted up safety guidelines that helped protect any kids and families we would be filming and maintained a level of integrity and sensitivity to the courts. I called everyone to the table, and that included the prosecutor's office, defense attorneys, judges, the Indiana Judicial Center, CASAs, the state Department of Child Services--anybody who would potentially have contact with kids and families in these courts. I felt that everybody needed to know upfront what we were doing, because the last thing somebody would need would be to walk into a courtroom and say, 'What's a camera doing in here?'

So you have permission from the court to film, but you also get permission from all of the families involved?

Yes, exactly. The Indiana Supreme Court waived particular canons in state law to allow our cameras in, but obviously we abide by a set of guidelines when we do so. The most important guideline is that we never film anyone who doesn't agree to participate first, and that includes signing release forms. The other thing that I thought was important--which in the world of journalism rarely happens--is that once everyone participating signs a release form, we offer them the option to revoke their participation at any time. So we could film with someone for an extensive period of time, and if that family at the end of a year or 18 months decides they shouldn't have participated, they can drop out and their tapes will be destroyed. They will never be used. We have not had that happen, but I'd like to think that's because we've done it right from the beginning.

How can your documentaries be used for educational purposes?

One of our mandates is that everything we film will also be utilized for education and training purposes. We do that in the hopes that it will lead to better outcomes for kids and families. Sometimes juvenile judges take the bench without ever having witnessed a juvenile case before. They're as new to the system as we were when we first came in. So, for example, the Indiana Judicial Center uses our films to train new juvenile judges. Rather than having them watch a role-play video, they're seeing the real thing in action. Since we have filmed hundreds of cases over the years, we have a great variety of training material for them to use. They can show judges what could potentially happen in a child sexual abuse case or what could happen in an emergency removal case. So we don't just do this for TV. We're just as committed to the education and training side of the company.

A Calamari Productions photographer during the filming of the MSNBC series, Lake County Juvenile Justice.

A lot of our shows and DVDs are being used around the U.S. in a myriad of settings. For instance, a child welfare organization might be interested in screening one of our documentaries that focuses on child abuse and neglect cases, whereas a school of criminal justice might be more interested in our juvenile delinquency documentaries. From the UCLA School of Public Policy and Loyola Law School using our documentaries in classrooms, to Teach for America embedding our video in teacher training curriculum, to the American Bar Association's Commission on Youth at Risk using our videos to recruit attorneys to offer pro bono services, our work is being used in different ways all over the country.

Why did you want to do the Lake County Juvenile Justice series? How did you choose Lake County, Indiana?

When I originally gained access to film in Indiana courts, Lake County was one of the first courts to say they would participate. I wanted a mix of urban and smaller courts, and Lake County is one of the biggest courts in the state of Indiana. So we filmed in Lake County, which was interesting to me because it's right on the Chicago border, so they get a lot of crossover kids from Illinois. In Illinois the age of adulthood is 17, and in Indiana it's 18--which presents some issues. When it came time to film the juvenile justice series, we went back to Lake County because we had worked there before and because it presented some unique story lines and legal issues that we thought were important to highlight.

What do you hope will come from the juvenile justice series, and from your documentaries as a whole?

When the series first aired, we got a lot of calls from middle school and high school educators saying, 'If our kids could see what the consequences of committing juvenile offenses are, we really think this would go a long way in preventing them from making bad decisions.' NPR did a story while we were filming Lake County and they went into a juvenile detention facility where kids were watching the series. They interviewed one kid in particular who was detained, and he said during the radio report, 'Had I seen this show before I did what I did, I would have never done it. I had no idea this is what being in juvenile detention is really like.' So part of the reasoning behind what we do is to help kids understand--in real-life terms--what it means to be detained, what it means to go to court, what all is involved in that process. So many times, teenagers talk about 'juvie,' but they really have no idea what it is. Many times when I've given speeches in schools, I'll say, 'What do you think happens to a teenager when he goes to juvie?' I can't tell you the number of times kids will say, 'Well his parents probably go down and bail him out.' Well, no, you don't post bond for juveniles. That's not the way it works.

The other thing that's happened is that judges and juvenile detention officers find our documentaries useful for kids who are locked up, so that kids can understand the court process better and prepare for their court hearings. So many kids don't realize that once you're arrested and taken into juvenile detention, you have a court hearing. That means your parents are involved, and that shocks some kids. We often find that initially kids think they're most interested in seeing the footage of what it's like to be locked up, but by the end of our shows, what they're most taken aback by are the court hearings. They actually tend to find the court hearings scarier than being detained. Many of the kids we film are mortified on the day in court when they have to sit in front of their parents in a jail jumpsuit with handcuffs and shackles. Kids will tell us that there's just nothing worse. I think that it's the disappointment kids feel in themselves for having to put their parents through this that strikes a chord for kids when they watch our shows.

I understand that you're working on some new initiatives. Can you tell me more about that?

We have many projects in the works. We have a feature film that we are currently producing, which will be our first feature film bound for the big screen. What Waiting for Superman did for education, we're doing in juvenile justice and child welfare. And we're also in the preproduction phase of a couple of new television series.

We are also embarking on a lot of education and training initiatives. We're really splitting our time now more than we ever did in the past between television and film and education. I have spent the last year focusing on the educational side of the company, and it's where my passion is right now.

This April, Calamari Productions, in partnership with Indiana University and the Indiana University Research and Technology Center, will announce the national launch of the Institute for Juvenile Court and Corrections Research. The mission of the institute is to create an innovative online platform that delivers digital media to teachers, researchers, third-party platforms, and the general public as a resource for classroom use, curriculum and course development, and advocacy. The institute will aim to improve education and training for juvenile and social service organizations, K-12 and higher educational environments, in addition to fostering the health and betterment of at-risk kids and families nationwide.

Emily Shenk is Editor-in-Chief of Children's Voice

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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