Improving Family Engagement in Juvenile Justice Systems

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Richard Ross

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) in conjunction with the National Center for Youth in Custody (NC4YC) held a webinar Wednesday titled “Family Comes First: Transforming the Justice System by Partnering With Families.” The online event coincided with the release of a new Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) workbook, which was unveiled on Monday.

Presenters at the webinar included Wendy Luckenbill, senior recovery and resiliency specialist for the Community Care Behavioral Health Organization; Sheena Fazal, Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. national policy director and Neelum Arya, assistant professor of Law at Barry University, in Florida.

“Families do not understand the system,” said Arya, who is also the lead author of the new Annie E. Casey Foundation-supported CFYJ report. “Parents often do not understand how serious the process is.”

Oftentimes, she said, courts have difficulty engaging parents in their children’s system experiences because they lack adequate resources. Many parents with system-involved youth work multiple jobs, she added, so they are unable to become “full participants” in the juvenile justice process.

Engaging impoverished families, especially those caught up in cycles of violence and substance abuse, is particularly difficult for juvenile justice professionals, she said. Further complicating matters is a mistrust of the system by many families, who are consequently unwilling to cooperate with juvenile justice officials.

The intent of the new workbook, Arya said, was to establish a definition of  “family engagement” that can be shared by systems specialists and parents, which in turn may allow more families to connect with reform efforts.

Among other issues, Arya said that many parents of children with systems-involved youth may feel ashamed of their child’s arrest, and frequently believe they are “blamed” by systems professionals for the actions of their children. She said that parents who turn to the juvenile justice system to obtain behavioral help and other community supports for their children are often frustrated that the help never materializes.

Actively engaging families in these systems processes, however, would be more likely to get families the support they need, she stated.

Researchers conducted site visits in many states and sent out surveys to system stakeholders, including those in Juvenile Detentions Alternative Initiative (JDAI) and Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA) networks, “to understand what really does it take for juvenile justice professionals to meet the needs of families.”

Arya said that when stakeholders were asked to report some of the benefits of adjusting models to better meet the needs of families, respondents cited less recidivism, greater youth outcomes and increased staff morale -- stemming, primarily, from less antagonism between families and systems professionals.

As part of the project, Arya said two separate frameworks were created. The first, titled “The Five Features of a Transformed Justice System,” is centered around families’ desires to obtain support for their children both before and after certain challenges arise. More specifically, she said families often want peer support from other family members who have had similar experiences once their children become system-involved.

Arya also spoke about a second framework, called “The Family Model,” which stresses that families have a “primary decision making role in their child’s care and case, as well as the policies and procedures governing the care of all children in the justice system in their community.”

Whether or not their child is system-involved, she said most families want access to a continuum of services. Stating that the new workbook lists more than 40 examples of national, state and local family engagement frameworks, Arya added, “It is absolutely possible to make the changes that families want.”

For their part, Pennsylvania’s Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. (YAP) use family-focused programs focuses on the strengths of young people, and employ culturally competent, neighborhood-based supports. Their “child and family team meetings” are not proscriptive models, said Sheena Fazal, the organization’s national policy director. “We ask them what they need.”

YAP staff is not limited to those with clinical experiences, she added. As part of the organization’s community based approach, many staffers are pulled from the same environments the youth and families served are from. Some are even former system-involved individuals themselves, Fazal said.

“We look at families as equal partners in everything we do,” she stated. YAP employs “a never give up approach,” and if individualized plans don’t initially come together, the organization revisits the blueprint with the youth and family instead of assigning blame.

YAP, Fazal said, uses assessment tools like parent surveys and life domain bubble charts to determine what the concrete needs of families are. Since staff time with families are limited, she said the program is anchored around transitional planning and developing strategies to connect families with pre-existing community resources. Nevertheless, addressing the specific needs of parents is crucial in establishing the long term success of their children.

While attempting to improve resources for families with children in Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system, more family involvement was sought by many professionals, Wendy Luckenbill said.

“As we began to really talk about family engagement,” Luckenbill said, “probation officers, attorneys, everybody wanted  it.”

However, as efforts to implement more effective family engagement practices were discussed in Pennsylvania, Luckenbill said that many juvenile justice specialists were vocal about the difficulties of engaging “dysfunctional families.”

As a result, Luckenbill said that a three-pronged approach to family engagement -- built around the “universal” family needs of respect, shared information and “authentic opportunities for input” -- was needed to improve family and systems interaction in the state.

Beginning in 2007, the newly formed Family Involvement Committee of the Pennsylvania Council of Chief Juvenile Probation Officers began working on a project to engage families more effectively in the juvenile justice experiences of their children. While Luckenbill said that she uncovered some localized programs during the research process, she was put off by the lack of a “national body of literature” on the subject of promoting systems-involvement for families.

With support from the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change program, “A Family Guide to Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Justice System” was ultimately produced in 2012, which sought to foster partnerships between juvenile justice probation officers and the families of system-involved youth.

Part of the new guide was a family curriculum training program. Prior to training, Luckenbill said that barely half of the participants thought that family involvement in court processes had more benefits than downsides. After training was completed, however, she said that number jumped all the way up to nearly 80 percent.

According to Luckenbill, families become more engaged when they know they have someone within the system they can trust.

Luckenbill ended her presentation by addressing how agencies can best measure family engagement levels.

Utilizing youth outcomes, she said, is not necessarily the best means to gage family interaction, since any number of externalities could “sabotage” results.

Instead, she said agencies should look at family satisfaction measurements instead.

“I think that’s really a great place to start,” Luckenbill concluded.

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