Juvenile Drug Courts Agree More Family Involvement Needed; Some Not Sure How to Do It: Report

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WASHINGTON — Juvenile drug treatment courts must do more to bring families into the treatment process if they want to help young offenders overcome addiction and stay out of the criminal justice system, a team of mental health professionals concluded in a sweeping report released today.

Using a survey of 158 drug courts in 38 states as a backdrop, the report highlights the need to improve the current approach to treatment and presents a set of tools to help courts incorporate family-involved treatment plans. Juvenile drug treatment courts have been less successful than traditional juvenile courts in stopping recidivism or drug use among youths charged with crimes, and even trails adult drug courts in success rates, according to research cited in the report.

The survey results and recommendations released today by Policy Research Associates and the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice are designed specifically to address that lack of success, the report’s authors said this week. Court workers taking the survey overwhelmingly agreed that more family participation is crucial to keeping teens from relapsing and identified several obstacles that prevent families from becoming more involved.  

For example, survey respondents said family-centered treatment programs would benefit by providing transportation or child care so family members can be more involved in the young person’s treatment.  They even pointed to the benefits of providing small incentives, such as movie tickets, to encourage more family participation.

Despite the clear need for family engagement, the survey found that more than one-third of court workers had little to no understanding of the best strategies for doing so.

Brett Harris

“One of the most important things we are trying to do is to provide information and the tools to courts, to help them increase their efforts,” said study co-author Brett Harris, a clinical assistant professor in public health at the State University of New York at Albany. “The very low level of familiarity with engagement techniques probably surprised us the most. They thought it was important to successful outcomes, and you see that in the survey results. But they didn’t know the best ways to do that.”

In 2015, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention examined nine juvenile drug courts from three regions. Authors of that study found seven of the nine programs saw “higher rates of new referrals for drug court youth when compared with youth on traditional probation.” Additionally, six of the nine regions saw higher recidivism rates in the drug courts.

The study did not fault the concept of juvenile drug courts, but instead found the courts were poorly run.

[Related: Substance Use, Mental Health & the Road to Recovery: ‘Like Juggling Explosives Blindfolded’]

”Many of the juvenile drug courts were not adequately assessing their clients for risk, needs, and barriers to treatment success. Juvenile drug courts in general were not adhering to evidence-based practices,” the 2015 OJJDP study concluded. Of the nine drug courts examined, only one showed significant reductions in recidivism rates.

Karli Keator

For this latest study, Harris, Karli Keator and Nicole Vincent-Roller from Policy Research Associates, and consultant Brooke Keefer viewed the report not as an indictment of the entire juvenile drug court program, but as an opportunity to fix what’s wrong. Based on their experiences in the field, they believed engaging family in the treatment was the best chance of keeping teens off drugs and preventing them from committing new crimes. But they wanted to find out if others working in the field felt the same way.  

So they put together a survey looking at everything from the number of full-time and part-time staff, the average age of those in juvenile drug court and many other factors. Harris said she and her colleagues were somewhat surprised by the number of courts and states responding, saying it showed that courts are seeking help in addressing substance use disorder among youth.

The survey found nearly 80 percent of youth in drug court had not committed any felony other than the underlying drug charge. These courts deal with youth age 13 up to nearly 18.

“The literature has shown a lot of success in adult drug court, but with youth — a population that would benefit greatly and has so much of their lives ahead of them — the results have not been as good,” Harris said.

Among the recommendations and resources offered to juvenile drug courts in the report:

  • A detailed self-assessment tool: “This exercise can help gauge where your program’s family engagement work stands, indicate areas for improvement, and validate existing efforts.”
  • Early engagement with the juvenile offenders and their families.
  • Regular feedback from the youth and their families.
  • Better training of staff and of the family and other adults who are influential in the teen’s life and can be brought into the engagement process.

The next step will be helping local drug courts enact some of the report’s recommendations, and to continue raising awareness of the need for family engagement in treatment plans, Harris said.

“The best efforts are always multipronged, and while enhancing family engagement should help improve outcomes, there is still a lot of work to be done to implement the recommendations,” Harris said. “And, of course, we will need to follow up and evaluate, to see what other prongs can be added based on what we see and hear in the field.”

More related articles:

Youth Need Substance Abuse Help in Communities, Experts Say

Obama Affirms at Drug Summit That Addiction Is Disease, Not Moral Failure

Naloxone and the Cop


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9 thoughts on “Juvenile Drug Courts Agree More Family Involvement Needed; Some Not Sure How to Do It: Report

  1. I can’t agree with you more. The goal of most families is to raise well rounded, happy, healthy children. As a single mother when raising my child, I was engaged in everything that he was involved in. I also recognized that a lack of service programs in the community was a major barrier for juveniles and families. Until the system can understand that families are not the problem. There are so many external factors that impact the lives of loving caring families. Families only need a hand to help and understanding and not to label them or to lock their children up.

  2. As a mother of children who have been involved in the justice system, a life-long professional in the fields of child welfare and juvenile justice and a curriculum developer whose primary mission in this chapter of my life is to help systems become better equipped to engage and partner with families in meaningful ways, it is so encouraging to me to see attention to this important matter. As several of the previous commentators have noted, families do not need or want gift cards or pizza, but what they often need are meaningful supports so that they can fully engage not only with their own child’s case but also with the system as a whole. It is important, as has been said, to enlist families themselves in local communities in helping to define and describe what supports are most needed to nurture, facilitate and sustain meaningful family and agency/system partnerships. In some instances practical supports such as transportation might be essential. In other instances, it may be a matter of providing peer navigators that help parents and other family members to understand and navigate a system that is both complex and often confusing. Family engagement must start with the premise that families love their children and are assets both to their children and to the community as a whole. Even when families go through rough waters, they have many strengths and much to offer. Starting from this point of respect lays a solid foundation for the work to come. I have seen the notes written in my son’s case files about my husband and I. These notes are filled with inaccuracies, assumptions and disrespectful language. Incentives will not change that, but a genuine invitation to join the conversation, meet at the table together as equals and work collectively to resolve challenges and brain-storm solutions will. It is also important to recognize the impact of both individual trauma as well as multi-generational and systemic trauma on children, families and communities. Recognizing trauma and using trauma-informed, trauma-responsive approaches to communication and relationship-building is key to success. Parent-led movements in the fields of special education, children’s health care, mental health and child welfare have proven again and again that this is an approach that works and it is my sincere hope that the justice field will embrace this approach as well. I for one am ready to partner with agencies and systems to help achieve this goal. My work and passion is informed not only by my own personal experience over several decades, but also as a result of my service and engagement with the National Child Traumatic Stress Network and as a Board member with Justice for Families as well as working for a period of time within the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). We need more genuine partnerships between family members like myself and the systems that exist for the purpose of serving our youth and our communities.

  3. I remember feeling incredibly disrespected by the $10 gift cards, pizzas at meetings and other items dangled in front of me when all I was searching for was support and a sincere, non-judge mental shoulder to cry on as I learned how to navigate the system. On more than one occasion I politely declined and even began stating up front “You don’t need to offer me anything to what I need to do for my son…” More often than not this was seen as an affront to the good people who were simply trying to help me with my then ‘wayward child’, it seems. I have over the years come to grips with the fact that the very lack of value implicitly applied to the families and young people impacted by any system is usually equivalent to that pizza and that $10 gift card. There is no need to entice anyone to do anything for someone they love when they know you are going to listen, involve them as a partner in the change desired and respect them as individuals.

  4. It’s good to read that system folks are starting to realize families are important.

    When identifying and developing solutions I hope they, and the research people, look to families and not themselves. Asking the system people for suggestions is fine but not the answer. That’s just continuing the tradition of telling families what they need.

    The whole ‘I know what is best for you and your child and you will do what I say and appreciate my forced interference’ attitude is patronizing and destructive. It’s part of the problem. The system folks do not know what the families want and need. Families know what the families want and need. It starts with being respectful and listening.

    Historically the justice systems have fostered resentment and done more harm than good. Repairing the historical harm and rebuilding trust is not going to be quick and easy.

    Are you ready to leave your comfort zone? Are you ready to listen? Are you ready to turn our suggestions into culture and policy changes? If not, you’re not serious about working with families and your efforts are going to fail.

  5. My son was caught up in the Juvenile Justice System a few years ago. I was there for every meeting with counselors, Probation Officers, Detention Officers, attended and was vocal at all Court appearances, etc. It was a nightmare for me, especially when my son was sent to Juvenile Prison, because “he wanted to go”. The Juvenile Justice “experts” thought this was best for him, because it was what my son wanted. I tried to convince the experts that other alternatives such as more family counseling would be better than sending my son off to prison, but my pleas were overlooked. I was an unintended victim of this System, that blames the families of the juveniles when there is no one else to blame. In my son’s case, the System took the easy way out and locked him up for 6 months behind a mass of barbed wire and ENDLESS fears of a mother. In some instances, families are there to support their children, we do not need any incentives to be engaged. These are OUR kids and we will be there for them, no matter what. Improvement in the Juvenile Justice system will come when the System stops blaming parents and looks at ways to bring the child back with his family. And, for once–LISTEN and TRY some suggestions of the PARENTS! In my son’s case, the System did NOTHING but separate my son from his family. It was a horrible NIGHTMARE!!!

  6. As a parent whose juvenile son took his life while incarcerated, I have spent years trying to understand, knowing there will never be answers to the unknowns. I appreciate the honesty in the article that court workers had little to no understanding of best practices or strategies. My reaction to this, listen, listen and listen more to families, to include all pertinent people in that juveniles life. A family is not necessarily a Mom and Dad, the biological persons. Extend your outreach to anyone in the juveniles life and take the time to truly understand who they are, the environment they are living and learning in. Another recommendation is make it convenient for families and others to be involved which means more convenient times for meetings so parents are not jeopardizing their jobs needing to take time off frequently. Childcare and transportation are key for family involvement. Incentives such as movie tickets are truly an insult to a family dealing with the unknowns if an addiction is going to steal their son or daughter from them. Needing understanding, the system being able to listen, empathize, provide community resources, adequate time and convenient time for meetings and communication will be a beginning to engage more families. Talk to organizations that promote, advocate, and are willing g to share real life stories they have lived. They know!

  7. It is certainly good to see any court espouse an interest in engaging “family” in legal action involving their children. Now it’s time to stop the verbiage and replace it with action that indicates the desire is actually genuine.

    Stereotyping goes both ways. Courts/the criminal justice system has notoriously treated families as if they are as guilty as the perpetrator and with almost the same disdain. Families have thus seen the authorities as the enemy. This has resulted in an “us vs them” mentality that literally prevents cooperative working relations.

    If the courts/criminal justice system truly want to ENGAGE families, they would assess their own attitude toward the families. It’s impossible to engage someone you disrespect. Continuing to say “We want families engaged, but THEY won’t engage,” places blame in the wrong place.

    To overcome and progress beyond the us vs them mentality, the authorities and their representatives must evidence genuine care, concern and desire to work cooperatively with families. To do otherwise is seen as threatening by family members. They will not engage when they feel judged and threatened.

    As a social worker I have worked with prison families (juvenile & adult) for over 40 years, and I know without a doubt they want to participate in helping their child, juvenile or adult overcome substance abuse; addiction; anger issues, etc but most are too intimidated by the system and its representatives to come out of the woodwork. They feel threatened, because they are often treated with judgmental disrespect and disdain making them often justified in staying away. Stop the intimidation, stringently revamp staff (including administrators) training to reflect a genuine belief that that family is an excellent resource.

  8. Do you honestly believe that if you entice a family with movie tickets you are engaging the family? As a parent of a youth who had been in the juvenile justice system, and as an advocate working with other parents who have a child in the juvenile system, I am offended by your comment. Engaging a family can be as simple as; listening to us, really listen to us; spend time getting to know our family, our customs, our traditions, our strengths, our weaknesses, and by all means showing us a little respect goes a long way. Provide avenues in which our voice can be heard. We know our children better than anyone else.
    Providing transportation and child care are great ways to allow us to participate in our child’s treatment plan. But offering incentives that have nothing to do with us being a part of their team, is very disrespectful in my opinion.

  9. Thank you for sharing this important work!

    Unfortunately, drug courts for youth have followed the juvenile justice system as a whole when it comes to engaging the families of youth they serve. This should not come as a surprise considering that the first juvenile court was established based on parens patriae, Latin for “parent of the nation”. Parens patriae in law, refers to the public policy power of the state to intervene against an abusive or negligent parent, legal guardian or informal caretaker, and to act as the parent of any child or individual who is in need of protection, according to Wikipedia. This legal doctrine has served to exclude and blame families for over 100 years.
    As the mother of a son once involved in the juvenile justice system, and the executive director of Justice For Families, a national group founded by families of young people involved in the system, I know that there are many myths and stereotypes associated with families and that these uninformed assumptions are all too common among juvenile justice practitioners. The barriers that exist between systems and families are complex and call for intentional strategies that address racial and ethnic biases and a comprehensive understanding of trauma and adolescent behavior. I can assure you that providing incentives, such as movie tickets, is far less important than addressing the underlying philosophies that have historically divided two groups of folks that are seeking the same outcome, a healthy, happy and well-adjusted child.

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