Safeguarding Milwaukee’s Youth: An Interview with Pathfinders’ Dan Magnuson

By Patricia Obletz

Daniel O. Magnuson, MA, MSW, is the President/CEO of Pathfinders, formerly known as the Counseling Center of Milwaukee. This 40-year&-old, non-profit agency works with young people who are in crisis due to physical or sexual assault, homelessness, poverty or mental health issues, such as depression and post traumatic stress disorders.

Dan also chairs the Youth Mental Health Connections (YMHC). He met with “Peace of Mind” to talk about the status of at-risk young people in Milwaukee County. Dan said, “I’ve been working to help children for 31 years, and became president of Pathfinders six years ago. Before that, for a decade, I worked for a large national association in human services, traveling across the country to engage with agency people focused on issues of mental health and human services. When I got here, I was struck by the racism and economic fragmentation of Milwaukee in general.

“The human service and provider community reflects this fact. White providers didn’t know black providers well enough, let alone work with them as well as could be. To overcome distrust requires relationship-building. To create functional working relationships, you have to get to know each other. But there weren’t any organizations focused on youth mental health that crossed the boundaries between juvenile justice, child welfare and community﷓based organizations. There were groups, but each was focused on only particular slivers of this population.

“Competition for funding was another divisive factor. But it’s not all about money. It’s this larger issue that Milwaukee is the seventh poorest city in America; it ranks in fourth place for having the poorest kids. This city has one of the highest rates of violence in the nation; it is one of the most racially divided. And, according to the Census Reports, Milwaukee has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates per city in any industrialized nation, which was projected to increase annually. Since this fact was made public, the United Way and other agencies began to concentrate on preventing teen pregnancy. Half of the fathers of babies born to girls ages 14–17 are 20 years old or older. The statistics on girls who have sex involuntarily show us that 74 percent of girls who have sex before 14, and 60 percent of girls who have sex before 15 have sex involuntarily. Fortunately, in this city, there are a number of bright, dedicated people working to improve conditions for kids. A number of them are members of the Milwaukee Youth Mental Health Connections (YMHC).

“The YMHC network first met in 2004 to find out who is focusing on the youth at risk and their mental health status. To answer that question, YMHC obtained funding to launch a series of surveys and interviews with key people in town; this effort took about six months. The $25,000 for this project came from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation: Bob & Linda Davis Family Foundation; The Annie E. Casey Foundation & Alliance for Children and Families; Northwestern Mutual Foundation, and the United Way of Greater Milwaukee.

Surprising Survey Results

“The findings of this study were surprising, and far more complicated and more difficult to summarize. The survey revealed that between 35,000 to 40,000 kids in Milwaukee County (15 percent to 20 percent) would benefit from some kind of community-based outpatient care. Given environmental stresses, in particular, poverty, that number could be much higher.

“The take-away information from this survey is that, in general, the number of therapists in Milwaukee matches the level of need. It is not so much that Milwaukee needs more general social work, but it does need more specialists, such as child psychiatrists and other providers with expertise in youth mental health ( ) The county also needs more providers who are trained to work with kids who have been sexually assaulted, and more providers who are culturally diverse to meet the cultural needs of the kids.

“Kids were falling between the cracks for the reasons cited above, as well as the lack of funding to help link community providers with the public schools.

“The most dramatic finding uncovered by this report was the serious lack of a planning process to coordinate existing services, identify barriers and ensure that access to care is improved. For some youth in need, such as those in the child welfare system or juvenile system, planning and coordination of care does exist and does well. However, many at risk youth are not adjudicated by the courts to be in the care of the state. This is the core reason why YMHC exists. There are a lot of provider agencies and clinics, such as Children’s Hospital, Lutheran Social Services, Aurora Family Services, Jewish Family Services, Catholic Charities, and more, but there was duplication of services, and too many children were not being helped.

“I’m committed at Pathfinders to do programs only in collaboration with other agencies. If we don’t, then we collude with and perpetuate the disconnect between agencies. This is one of the main themes pointed out by the 2005 YMHC report.

“Based on the findings of this report, YMHC constructed three goals:

1.] Improve access and remove barriers to care
2.] Educate teachers and establish and keep current a database of services providers
3.] Improve cultural competency and sensitivity; attract more providers trained in sexual assault counseling.

“To achieve the first goal, YMHC continues to coordinate services among providers, child welfare and the justice systems.

“YMHC is accomplishing the second goal by making educational videos for front line staff that enable them to actually see what different mental health issues look like in a nine year old, for example. Corresponding commentary informs teachers and youth workers on how to interact with that child. We then formed a work group to build strategies with MPS and parochial schools to link students to the right services. And we teamed with Mental Health America (MHA), who built an online database for families and teachers that now is available on their website, This database lists a wide variety of mental health problems, such as reactive attachment disorder or conduct disorders, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder, eating disorders and more; it lists service providers who specifically treat them; also included is a listing of culturally diverse providers for minority group children. MHA frequently updates this directory.

“YMHC is implementing its third goal by increasing cultural diversity training and attracting providers who reflect the different cultures of Milwaukee students. When providers are less tuned into issues of racism, there’s a barrier between the provider and the child, which hurts the quality of care. White people often don’t get how big a deal the difference between white and black cultures is. The legacy of racism is that, if you’re a black American, you’re living a bi-cultural existence. In the black community, there are naturally occurring groups of people from churches to concerned citizens who are helping children, such as Pastor Lee Shaw and Minister Greg Lewis (

Every Night, More Than 400 Children Seek Shelter

“Milwaukee County has many single proprietor group homes licensed by the state. They house six to eight kids who are in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Sometimes, poverty alone is enough to send a child to a group home. These homes are resources for kids in trouble to get them out of where they are at risk, stabilize their problems, reunite them with their families if the environments are safe, or place them with extended family, foster parents or permanent adoptions. Residents at these group homes get daily counseling services; the quality of psychiatric care varies from home to home.

“Studies also show us that, on any given night, more than 400 children are out of their homes and seeking shelter of some sort. But in Milwaukee, there are only 16 certified runaway and homeless shelter crisis beds. Eight of them are at Pathfinders Youth Shelter (414–271–1560) on the eastside, and eight are at Walker’s Point Youth and Family Center (414–672–5531; 24-hour crisis phone line: 414–647–8200) on the south side. In general, Pathfinders has to turn away four out of 10 kids who come to our door because we don’t have room. I’m not saying that we need 400 emergency beds, but 16 are woefully inadequate. Most of these kids do find a place to stay through their friends, neighbors or a relative.

“Pathfinders and Walker’s Point youth shelters also jointly operate the “Street Beat” outreach program. We hired a team of three people in their 20s and 30s, each who had lived the street life and are committed to helping young people who are where they once were. They drive around the streets, stopping 40 times a night to walk up to kids who appear to be homeless and very disconnected. The Street Beat team connects with them by offering them health supplies, bus tickets if need be, food vouchers, and condoms. These kids are incredibly vulnerable to exploitation. We know from national studies that one-third of homeless kids ages 14 to 18 will trade sex for food and money within three days of leaving home. They appreciate the condoms that help them avoid sexually transmitted diseases, which gives them a strong incentive to let the team link them to health and human services.

“A quarter of the kids who come to Pathfinders come because of poverty alone. What can a 16-year-old do if the family is homeless? We link her into job-readiness services and to jobs, as well as linking their adult families to adult services to help stabilize them. It’s a hard situation to improve. Follow-up continues for about six months or longer, if needed. In our runaway shelter, by state mandate, kids can stay with us for only two weeks.

“Each year, the Pathfinders group home helps more than 200 runaway and homeless boys and girls who are escaping domestic violence. Regardless of the level of abuse they experience, being pulled away from their family causes them mental distress. Kids come on a volunteer basis and must have their parents’ permission. Pathfinders has been around for 40 years to serve children who are in crisis. Either they’re in the child welfare system already, or we link them to child welfare when they are at risk of abuse and neglect. When this happens, a whole set of resources and services click into play. It’s hard to say how many of the kids who come to Pathfinders go on to live healthy lives. What we do know is that 90 percent of those who leave us enter sustainable living situations in a safe home.

“The Pathfinders crisis team works with kids and their families to identify why they came to us and what they need. Family conflict is typically part of the mix, which means daily counseling between parent(s) and child, together and separately, as needed. Sometimes, kids come to us because their parents kick them out, so it varies as to how willing parents are to connect with their kids.

“Pathfinders also works with children who are in Wraparound Milwaukee services. This project of Milwaukee County Behavioral Health is a model of family-driven, individualized care; each child receives a Care Co-coordinator, who is instructed to share information and results with the families. Kids served by this program get better service, including psychiatric care, because this system mobilizes services to care for all their needs, such as health, mental health, mentoring — even bus tickets to an extended family member. Milwaukee is a national leader with this type of care for severely emotionally disturbed kids, as well as kids in child welfare and juvenile justice. But there’s a whole other set of children who are not in Child Welfare, at least not yet. It’s almost as if kids need to have a dramatic trauma in their lives or act out and become involved in juvenile justice before these services can come into play.

“This is true for many adults, as well. I heard recently that the Los Angeles jail is one of the largest mental health facilities in the country ( ) In order for people to get the services they need, triggers have to happen for both adults and kids, and usually this means incarceration.

Using Art Helps Children Overcome Trauma

“Both Pathfinders’ outpatient and shelter services use art to help children overcome trauma and increase self-awareness and self-understanding. The art program is called “Hand in Hand” and it’s for low income kids who have been sexually assaulted, and for our homeless kids in our shelter. For many of these kids, talk therapy has limited value, which is why we give them the opportunity to express themselves through art. Once a year, we have an art show of clients’ work, which we link up to Milwaukee’s Gallery Night at Yama Yoga in the heart of the Third Ward.

“We need to continue to rally partners in the community who are willing to help give voice to the voiceless. Parents need to change their mind towards mental health services and seek the help their children need. Parents need to have conversations with their kids, even when they don’t want to talk about responsible sexual behavior and what that means, and about drug use. Even though it isn’t comfortable for many parents to have these conversations with their kids, it is crucial for them to have them anyway. Parents need to recognize that mental illnesses are in every family and that they need to become educated about the warning signs of problems, to talk about issues even if they’re uncomfortable with the subject matter, and educate themselves on what community resources are available.


Pathfinders Services 414–271–4610; Youth Shelter 414–271–1560 or visit
Mental Health America 414–276–3122 or visit
Greater Milwaukee National Alliance on Mental Illness 414–344–0447 or visit

24Hour Help is Available:
Crisis Walk-In Center, 9499 Watertown Plank Road, 414–257–7222 (Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin’s Education Center) (Suicide Prevention Resource Center) (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention)
414–647–8200 (24-hour Youth Crisis Phone line)
1–800–784–2433 (National Hopeline Network)
1–800–273–8255 (National Crisis Hotline)
1–800–448–3000 (Girls and Boys Town National Hotline)

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on April 17, 2009

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