This story was produced in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity.
All the world’s a stage — even behind bars, in Massachusetts. Inside juvenile correctional facilities in the Bay state, young offenders study the finer points of Shakespeare, rehearse for weeks, then perform the bard’s works before parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles.
In Texas, incarcerated youths lead their relatives to schools inside juvenile facilities, where they showcase their work in classrooms and introduce their teachers. A state juvenile justice staffer likened the visits to the sort of open house you might expect at a public school.
In Indiana, juvenile authorities have greatly expanded visiting hours at their facilities. Even late-night visits can be arranged by appointment, if needed, to accommodate a family member’s schedule. For those who can’t make it in person, Indiana facilities — like some in other states — offer virtual visits through videoconferencing technology such as Skype.
The three states illustrate efforts to foster “family engagement,” which has become a buzzword in juvenile justice circles. It’s about building bridges between family members — or other key figures in youths’ lives — and the staff at juvenile facilities that house youngsters.
Experts, supported by a small but growing body of research, say fostering family engagement improves incarcerated youths’ behavior, helps families feel more connected, reduces disciplinary incidents and boosts the staff morale.
Moreover, strengthening these connections better prepares youths for a return to the community upon release — most return to their family homes — and reduces repeat offenses.
But critics complain that for all the progress in building better relations with families, much of the juvenile justice system in the United States is still beset by brutal conditions, rampant violence, including sexual assaults of inmates by staff, and widespread use of the psychological torture that is solitary confinement.
And historically, relations between family members and juvenile facility staff have been marked by mistrust and, at times, downright hostility (in fact, the first U.S. juvenile facilities explicitly tried to isolate kids from their families).
Staff at many juvenile facilities have developed a reputation for acting as if family members are to blame for youths’ offenses and treating the family members with disdain and disrespect.
Family members, for their part, often view officials at juvenile facilities not as allies, but as obstacles, in the ostensible goal of the juvenile justice system: rehabilitation of youthful offenders.
New Mindset in Massachusetts
“A lot of the parents line up against custodial agencies. They see us as an extension of the court system and the child welfare system that have been removing the kids from their homes and that they’ve had a really bad experience with over a period of years,” Peter Forbes, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS), said in an interview.
“You have to work against that dynamic. You have to be deliberate about how you’re going to break that down. In Massachusetts, we’ve definitely stepped away from the mindset that the parents are the problem.”
In fact, parents and other family members play an integral part of the success of the state’s innovative work with the nonprofit Actors’ Shakespeare Project, based in the Boston suburb of Somerville, Mass.
Family members and friends form the appreciative audiences for the incarcerated youths’ forays into the four-century-old works of Shakespeare. For example, incarcerated girls recently performed the comedic play “As You Like It” at the Zara Cisco Brough Center in Westborough, Mass.
Actors’ Shakespeare Project, which cleverly calls the program "Incarcerated Youth At Play,” says the themes of some Shakespeare plays, such as justice and revenge, violence and grief and the power of love and redemption, can resonate with troubled youths of the 21st century.
Daisy Gomez-Hugenberger, communications coordinator for DYS, said in an email that Shakespearean “teaching artists” from the nonprofit work for three to 16 weeks with incarcerated youths to create ensembles. And English, language arts, theater and social studies teachers in the facilities help youths explore Shakespeare’s plays and write, rehearse and perform within the context of teaching in the classroom.
On a more prosaic level, sometimes simple things mean a lot to family members, who are often guilt-ridden over what they might have done differently and racked by anxiety. Forbes says even calling families to ask about their schedules instead of just mailing out a notification of a youth’s next monthly treatment plan meeting and holding parent-teacher nights can help break down barriers.
Massachusetts also invites youths and families to participate in occasional DYS “strategic planning” meetings.
Neelum Arya, research director of the Program in Public Interest Law and Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, law school, labels such outreach “family-driven justice” in an 83-page article in the current issue of the Arizona Law Review.
“We’re in the first decade of this, so we have a long way to go,” Arya said in an interview. “I would definitely say that there are a few shining stars. But by and large, most facilities in the country are not operating with a particular understanding of how to better involve families in the system. The fact is that at this point, the examples are few and far between.”
As Arya noted in her article, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department has made family engagement a “top priority” as part of efforts to overhaul the department in the aftermath of a scandal over rampant sexual abuse.
Among other reforms, the department developed a 12-provision “Parents Bill of Rights” and a family handbook detailing facility policies.
Arya also points to the widely cited “Missouri Model” and lauds the state for putting a premium on family engagement and for viewing “families as experts.” Among other things, Missouri’s Division of Youth Services state advisory board includes parents of two youths who had been incarcerated.
The division also assigns a specific “service coordinator” to work with each incarcerated youth’s family starting within days of sentencing and continuing throughout the youth’s time with Missouri’s DYS. The service coordinators even make home visits to meet with families to put them more at ease than they would be in an institutional setting.
Most youths are also placed within 50 miles of their homes, with flexible visitation policies and transportation offered to families.
But nationally, Arya writes, “There is widespread agreement among families that the majority of juvenile detention and corrections facilities are geared towards punishment, not treatment, and are inappropriate for their children.”
Even the decor of a facility can make a “huge difference,” Arya says: “Do you have children’s artwork on the wall? Do you have positive examples of children succeeding or examples of messages saying your children are constantly in trouble?”
Real Reform or Window Dressing?
And Sue Badeau, a longtime juvenile justice advocate based in Philadelphia, strikes a cautionary note about the progress of family engagement.
Badeau said it’s much easier for agencies to adopt cosmetic or highly visible changes like expanding visiting hours or scheduling events than to genuinely change the culture of an institution so its staff values family engagement.
She knows of what she speaks. Badeau and her husband, Hector, are the parents of six children who have spent time in the juvenile or adult criminal justice systems (among their 22 children, 20 of them adopted). And in 2011, she served a one-year fellowship focused on family engagement with the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and has spoken and written widely on the subject.
“The real work comes for systems to really determine whether they value the role of families,” Badeau said. “Even if they had a party or improved the visiting hour schedule or something like that, the question is how are they doing as far as training with their staff on the role of families?
“Do they value families? What do they see in terms of how they engage families in the actual planning for their child’s programming and treatment and … how their lives will be once they leave the facilities?”
Staff, she said, must be trained to build positive relationships with youth and their families. Family engagement should be part of staffers’ job descriptions and one of the skills included in staff evaluations, she said.
Youth and their families should have some say in choosing which relatives or others such as mentors, coaches or family friends the facilities should deal with, Badeau said.
She pointed to innovations including “family-to-family peer support” and said families should be tapped to help train facility staff and sit on advisory boards and similar groups at local, state and federal levels.
Oregon, known for its progressive juvenile justice policies, has created a family engagement coordinator position to improve the connection between facilities and family members or other adults who play a big role in youths’ lives.
Fulfilling Unmet Needs
Faith Love, the family engagement coordinator for the Oregon Youth Authority, said in an email that youths' behavior may be linked to their home life. By connecting with the families, OYA can help address unmet needs for food, shelter and employment as well as medical, mental health and substance abuse treatment, she said.
Adults in youths’ lives may need coaching and support to help incarcerated youths, sometimes involved with multiple systems, Love said.
“Most of the families we work with are either exhausted from or unsure how to deal with the behavior of their child.” Love said. “They may have previously sought help from multiple sources. Some families are hurt, ashamed and not sure of how best to become involved.
“It is extremely rare for any parent not to want something good and better for their child.”
Sometimes, encouraging family engagement means paying for hotel stays, bus tickets or gasoline so the relatives can visit youths in Oregon facilities far from their homes.
Among efforts to increase family engagement in other states:
- Ohio juvenile authorities collaborated with the nonprofit, New York City-based Vera Institute of Justice on the project “Families as Partners: Supporting Youth Reentry” to encourage more frequent visitation and correspondence and increase family involvement in youths’ treatment and re-entry plans. Working with two juvenile facilities for boys, Vera researchers found increased family visitation improved youths’ behavior and school performance. Vera highlighted the importance of visitation and suggested other juvenile facilities change visitation polices and take other steps to promote more frequent visitation.
- In a different twist on family engagement, the “Baby Elmo Program” being piloted in Santa Clara County, Calif., and elsewhere, focuses on strengthening relationships between incarcerated teen fathers and their infants. The project of the Early Learning Center at Georgetown University law school and the nonprofit, San Francisco-based Youth Law Center relies on a standardized curriculum for the 10-week course. Facility personnel use “Sesame Street” videos to teach the fathers ways to interact with their babies. Many of the incarcerated youths did not have a strong father figure in their lives. Arya, the UCLA law school researcher, says early results are promising, showing fathers the big role they can play in their children’s development and helping the babies develop bonds with their fathers.
- The New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission has issued a request for proposals for an organization to assess the “family friendliness” of current visitation at the New Jersey Training School for Boys in Monroe Township; to provide staff training on the importance of family engagement and ways to encourage it, including peer family advocacy and support; and to help families navigate the juvenile justice system. The training school, which has come under criticism for extensive use of solitary confinement, is New Jersey’s largest juvenile facility, holding up to about 200 boys. Kevin M. Brown, JJC’s executive director, said in an email: “We need to challenge ourselves to view policies and practices through the eyes of family members, in order to assess whether they are family-friendly and actively promote and support family involvement. … If we can help families, we can help young people succeed.”
Kim Godfrey, executive director of the nonprofit, Braintree, Mass.-based Performance-Based Standards, which helps agencies and facilities monitor and improve conditions and treatment, noted most youths will return to their families upon release.
“All kids want to be with their families, and kids leave the juvenile justice system to go back to the community and be with their families,” Godfrey said. “And we need to support that relationship and strengthen it, rather than sever it, while they’re in custody.”
Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the nonprofit, Washington-based Campaign for Youth Justice, expressed similar sentiments about incarcerated youths.
“In detention, you’ve got to realize that you have only temporary care of them,” Mistrett said. “These kids are going to return to families. You’ve got to engage families. It’s the only way you’re going to get the kids out to stay out.”