"Behind Bars" from Indianapolis Monthly Magazine

Everyone on the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility staff seems slightly on edge today, and not just because they’re surrounded by teenage offenders who could attack without warning. A documentary about their work, “Inside Teen Lockdown,” made by Indianapolis filmmaker Karen Grau, premieres on Court TV in less than 72 hours, and they wonder how they’ll come across. Competent? Caring? Overly aggressive? On this late-August day, as they encounter Grau walking around the immaculate grounds and hallways, a few even ask whether they get any face time. Their reaction is a mix of anticipation and dread.

Inside a conference room, Grau meets with Superintendent Michael Dempsey to deliver the final DVD of the show. She hands him the disc, which he taps nervously on the table. Dempsey was the one who allowed Grau and her film crew unprecedented access to the facility for two weeks in January. While they were inside, their cameras captured scenes of a violent offender in the segregation unit being forcibly extracted from his cell and hints of a race war.

Dempsey wanted the public to see the demanding, sometimes frightening situations his staff faces, as well as the efforts they make to rehabilitate the “students,” as the inmates are called. To do that, he had to trust Grau to tell the story, and as he’ll tell you with a laugh, “I’ve worked in departments of corrections for 20 years, so I don’t immediately trust hardly anybody.”

“I did a little checking on Karen,” he says. “But the kicker was, she had a lot of good backing from the Supreme Court. Obviously they wouldn’t allow her to be doing some of the things she’s doing if they didn’t trust her.”

In late 1998, the Indiana Supreme Court granted Grau permission to bring cameras in juvenile courts—an extraordinary first. Since then, operating under the company name Calamari Productions, she has made a stirring, groundbreaking series of documentaries that have taken viewers inside the juvenile-justice system. “For Their Own Good,” broadcast on Dateline NBC, and “In a Child’s Best Interest,” which aired on MSNBC in April 2002, showed the inside of Indiana’s juvenile courts, and 2006’s “No Place for a Child” followed up on the original MSNBC stories. “Kids in Crisis,” made for MSNBC in 2005, trailed caseworkers as they removed at-risk children from their homes. Her MTV series, Juvies (2006), shows what happens when youths enter the justice system. And with “Inside Teen Lockdown,” she captured life in Pendleton’s segregation unit, where the most dangerous juveniles are housed. Another of her documentaries from that facility is scheduled to run on MSNBC in January.

Each step of the way, Grau has asked authorities to trust her, and each step of the way they’ve done so—although sometimes reluctantly. The filmmaker is not out to turn the people in her documentaries into villains or heroes. She trades in explanatory journalism. She just wants the public to see how the process works and that everyone involved is doing the best they can under trying (and sometimes impossible) conditions.

“People know that when they give her the keys to the kingdom, she’s not going to screw it up,” says WISH (Channel 8) news director Kevin Finch, who worked with Grau to produce her initial report, “In the Child’s Best Interest,” on WTHR (Channel 13) in 1999. “She’s highly ethical, and she has good reason to take the access she gets and turn it into compelling stories.”

Grau, 45, is a tall woman with a booming laugh and a physique that suggests the track athlete and volleyball player she once was. She can’t fully explain what drives her to tell the stories of juvenile delinquents and the officers of the court who tough-love them, but a reasonable guess would be the nurturing instinct she developed during her “perfect” childhood as part of a large, close Italian family in an ethnic area of Mishawaka in Northern Indiana. Dad was a blue-collar worker; Mom was an office manager. Both died when Grau was in her 20s, and her mom left behind a letter that advised her to “always keep your feistiness.” She and her husband, Larry, who has an education-consulting business, have been married for 21 years, and they have two children: Alexa, a college student, and Chandler, who’s in sixth grade. A stable family has generally been a hallmark of Grau’s own life, and in her documentaries, it’s almost as if she’s trying to will some of that normalcy on the kids she profiles.

“Sometimes there are no good options for these kids,” she says. “That is why I keep doing this. I keep thinking I’m going to discover the right option. But the juvenile system has been around for 100-something years. Unfortunately, some kids just don’t stand much of a chance from early on.”

After graduating from IU in 1985, Grau started out doing a nightly sports program on WFYI (Channel 20), then served stints as a lobbyist for the Indiana Medical Association, spokesperson for the state Department of Correction, and deputy legislative director for then-Governor Evan Bayh.

When Bayh’s term began to wind down, Grau was hired on as a reporter for WTHR, a role she found too limiting. Telling stories in a minute and a half wasn’t for her, so she decided to form her own production company. At the time, her husband had a contract with the Indiana Judicial Center to study Indiana’s foster-care system. She helped him do court visits, which was how she ended up in juvenile court watching Judge Viola Taliaferro revoke the parental rights of a mother who had drug and eating disorders and no interest in taking care of her three kids.

“The kids were in court crying, and I was physically sick,” she says. “I could not shake this case. It stayed with me for well over two years. I thought about the case, I wondered how you could ever get access to these courts.”

Indiana courts prohibited cameras in courtrooms, and the idea of media presence inside the juvenile-justice system was unheard of. Still, she had to ask. Grau petitioned Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard, who convinced a divided court that allowing her cameras in would be the right thing to do as a way to show the public that what goes on behind closed doors is neither secretive nor sinister. You might say Shepard showed trust.

“Maybe the word ‘confidence’ would be a better way of describing my assessment of how she might undertake these projects,” the chief justice says. “I think the need for public attention to the plight of abused and neglected and delinquent children is important enough to warrant going beyond traditional rules of filming. We always thought there would be particular occasions when we would be willing to waive the rules against cameras, when we thought the value of the project was particularly high.”

Eventually the court said yes, with a few conditions. Grau had to work out the legal requirements (detailed signed releases from the families whose cases she would show), and she needed to find judges who would let her in. Judges James Payne in Indianapolis, Taliaferro in Bloomington, and Mary Beth Bonaventura in Lake County agreed.

“There was something about her that was very trustworthy,” says Bonaventura, senior judge of the Lake Superior Court Juvenile Division. “I’m very protective of the kids who come before me. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, so they’re all like my own children. I felt she was someone I could entrust their care to.”

Grau brought her cameras into the juvenile courts in 1999 with no home for the finished documentary and no financial backing. She mortgaged her house, took out loans, and accumulated six figures’ worth of debt. During her months in the courts, she saw any number of horrific cases—the mother who would go to work and leave her 2-year-old duct-taped to the wall, and the 15-year-old girl whose baby died from neglect: When the baby’s diaper came off, so did its skin. But Grau chose to focus on the miserable rather than the horrible. She wanted viewers to see how the system works.

“I never wanted this to be about shock value,” she says. “I wanted people to understand that there’s a lot of minutia involved in typical, everyday cases.” She came away with a revealing look at the cycle of misery that seems to hover over the juvenile courts. Channel 13 broadcast that first report, “In the Child’s Best Interest,” in February 2000, and Grau won a national Edward R. Murrow Award, one of the most distinguished prizes in broadcast journalism and the first of her 16 national awards.

Among the cases featured in that documentary was the story of Dwayne, a 9-year-old boy who had been molested as a baby and was facing charges of molesting other children. “I used to go to bed worried sick about that kid,” she says. “I just had no idea what his future was going to be.” She reached out to the boy, who was placed for seven years in a residential-treatment facility in Indianapolis. She visited regularly, took him to lunch, bought him clothes, and, when he finished his treatment, threw him a going-away party. Dwayne is now in high school and doing well.

Everyone who knows her shares the Dwayne story as an example of the kind of person Grau is. “It’s true, journalists are supposed to keep some distance from their subjects,” says Elise Warner, senior producer and director of development for MSNBC Documentaries. “But this is a great example of where Karen’s compassion makes her a great journalist.”

“In the Child’s Best Interest” caught the eye of the producers at Dateline NBC, who summoned Grau to New York for a meeting. They asked for more from inside the juvenile courts—an hour-long show for the network and a two-hour MSNBC special. She delivered. MSNBC then asked for a new show, and Grau followed up with “Kids in Crisis,” the first-ever filming of children being removed from their homes in the middle of the night.

In September 2005, she went back to Lake County and Judge Bonaventura’s court to show what happens when young offenders enter the justice system.The idea came to her when she was originally filming inside the child-abuse and neglect courts, and she noticed that many of the child victims coming into the hearings became delinquents later. It occurred to her that the two things were often hand-in-hand. “They’d come in through one door as victims, and later through the other as the accused,” she says. The night before filming was to begin on Juvies, a series Grau produced for MTV in January 2006, Bonaventura got cold feet. Would Juvies—a title the judge didn’t like—demean or diminish the work of the courts?  She called Grau, who was at the juvenile center in Lake County preparing to tape.

“I said, ‘Karen, I don’t know if we should do this,’” Bonaventura remembers. “She said, ‘Judge, I promise you, this is not going to belittle what you do or the importance of the work here.’ I had my cold feet for 30 minutes, but she assured me that it was going to be done properly and let the world see what was really going on here. And it did.”

Using quick edit cuts and a hip-hop/metal/pop soundtrack (this was MTV, after all), each episode of Juvies followed two kids from the time cops brought them to the Lake County Juvenile Detention Center, through the intake process, detention, and their first court hearing in front of the judge. Viewers watched kids transform from the cocky Day 1 “So what, I was busted for smoking pot and getting into an accident” to Day 3 or 4 “Oh, my God, if the judge doesn’t let me outta here I’m gonna die.”

Juvies instantly became one of MTV’s highest-rated shows ever. Beyond the ratings, the series touched a number of viewers—among them Pennsylvania philanthropist Gerald Powell, who pledged $100,000 college educations for two of the teenagers featured in the show if they stayed in school.

A week after “Inside Teen Lock-down” airs, Mike Dempsey, the superintendent at Pendleton, is a happy man. His facility is the kind of place the public hears about only when things go wrong, and Pendleton has had its share of incidents recently—a teacher sexually assaulted by an offender, a guard dropping an offender on his head, an offender critically wounded in a fight. He knew letting Grau and her cameras in carried potential risk, but now he can exhale.

What Grau showed the world was a tension-filled hour with voice-of-God narration (this was Court TV, after all) in which Dempsey’s staff handled a crazed juvenile, squelched a potential race war, and ultimately allowed two offenders to go free after finishing their rehabilitation. It was rarely pretty, but it was real.

“I was nervous not only about the public’s response, but also the staff’s,” Dempsey says. “But I’ve heard nothing but positive feedback from all sides. And I think we really owe that to Karen. Somebody could have taken that access and done some damage, but she did a good job telling an important story.”

Good thing, too, since he allowed her back inside in July for an MSNBC documentary scheduled to air in January.

“When you shut people out,” Dempsey says, “they have to make up their own minds about what they think is going on, and it’s not an accurate reflection of the truth.”


Posted on September 5, 2015 .