How to Move an Issue From a Kitchen Table to City Hall

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It was a particularly warm June day, and we were sitting at a kitchen table talking with a mother distraught about the recent arrest of her teenage son, who was being held pretrial at the adult jail in Philadelphia.

After a few hours of conversation about the challenges that she, her son and other children had experienced, along with their shared traits of resilience and determination, she asked if we had just a few more minutes to take a look at something she had received in the mail.

While we recognized the document as a court summons, we were unfamiliar with the story it told: It was issued by Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services, summoning her to a hearing where her ability to pay for the cost of her child’s incarceration in a juvenile justice placement would be determined (her son had recently returned from juvenile placement prior to this pretrial incarceration in the adult system). She handed us the document to say, “What is this?”

She thought the father of her children might have been taken to court for child support. She had been in child support proceedings before with him, and was confused about why her name was in the defendant position in the caption on the paperwork. We took a copy back to our office to learn more.

We called our colleagues, did our research and began to understand that it was not uncommon for parents to be charged for the cost of their children’s placement in the juvenile system by the city of Philadelphia.

We were shocked and appalled. Two weeks later, we were in the living room of another parent who shared a similar version of this devastating story: His youngest son was facing prosecution in the adult justice system, and we were discussing the prospects of having him transferred back, or decertified, to the juvenile system.

He shared that he was concerned about what the juvenile system might cost. His older son had also been placed, and he had received a bill in the mail without notice; his tax refund was later garnished.

Together, we lamented the impossible choice he may be forced to make: Acquiesce to the prosecution of his 17-year-old son in adult court, potentially leading to an adult prison sentence, or push for a juvenile placement that would reduce the already scarce financial resources he relied on to support his entire family. Horrified by what these two parents were experiencing, we decided that something had to be done about this practice, which had been underway in our city for nearly two decades.

Now, nearly two years later, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services has issued a moratorium on the practice, thanks to advocacy that began at that kitchen table and in that living room. This moratorium followed extensive local media coverage on the issue and a Philadelphia City Council hearing that brought a great deal of national attention media attention with it.

This moratorium was only possible because of the bravery of this mother, this father and later several other parents, in standing up and sharing their stories. Our subsequent advocacy efforts, jointly undertaken by our nonprofit organization, the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, and an incredible clinic called the Justice Lab, were at all times inspired and guided by the families we came to partner with. The lab, which is part of Temple Law School’s Stephen and Sandra Sheller Center for Social Justice, wrote a report pivotal to getting the policy changed. Juvenile Law Center's pivotal and groundbreaking work on the impact of costs and fees nationally helped set the stage for the City Council hearings that followed.

The victory the moratorium represents for youth and families in Philadelphia underscores the importance of policy work stemming from direct service to youth and families.

Far too often, policy efforts begin and remain in a vacuum. As our colleague Glenn E. Martin says, “those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”

In our case, we would not have known about this practice if we had not been sitting at that kitchen table, and then in that living room, and had built enough rapport with our youth partners’ mother (we challenge the traditional attorney-client language and power dynamic that it implies by engaging the young people and families that we work with as partners) to talk about a subject that she found embarrassing, and that she might have considered outside the scope of our work with her.  

As we worked against this practice in Philadelphia, our No.1 partners were the families. At each point, we kept going back to them to make sure we were accurately representing their experiences and asking follow-up questions.

Because the issue was raised by this mother, she was personally invested in contributing to the work and to a just resolution of the problem, and she walked with us every step of the way. When it came time to testify before Philadelphia’s City Council, she did not hesitate to take her place at the table; instead, she felt honored and emboldened to participate in the culmination of a process she initiated.

When it came to being interviewed by the national news, we had long, hard, honest conversations about what that exposure might mean for her and her family, and what the potential payoff could be, as well as the potential negative ramifications. We were only able to have these conversations because of the trusting relationship built on mutual respect that we had developed over more than two years. This relationship stemmed from the direct service work we had done together, which started at her kitchen table — not in our offices, or in a courthouse hallway.

At the City Council hearing at which the moratorium was announced, Philadelphia City Councilwoman Helen Gym apologized to this mother on behalf of the city of Philadelphia. It was an electrifying moment: for responsive government, for coalition-building and for validating advocacy efforts that are initiated and led by those who are directly impacted, and with whom we partner in the work.    

Joanna Visser Adjoian, Esq. and Lauren Fine, Esq. are the co-founders and co-directors of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project.  

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