Helping Parents Understand the Language of Juvenile Court

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A parent’s failure to take part in their child’s treatment and supervision plan is hurtful — the child, for the most part, is doomed! Notwithstanding the importance of effective treatment that targets a child’s tendency to commit crime, none of it can be maximized if parental involvement is minimal or nonexistent — or worse, resistant.

Parental involvement in the prevention or rehabilitation of delinquency cannot be overstated despite the research showing the strong influence of peers on delinquent behavior. Parental attributes are indirectly related to the causes of delinquency whereas peer influence is stronger and directly related to delinquency. So what does the research mean when it says that family function is the greatest protective buffer against delinquency?

Parental variables that include supervision, attachment, nurturing, and other similar pro-social and familial attributes are exactly that — buffers that protect the child from the anti-social variables of the outside world. The so-called “bad kid” down the street is that anti-social variable trying to instigate delinquency in the child. The determinative factor in most family situations is whether the child is equipped to resist the temptations of the “bad kid.” Is he buffered by the parental influences and controls?

Within a sociological context, it comes down to two competing theories — the differential association theory and the control theory. The differential association theory claims that delinquent behavior is learned through interaction in personal groups — with whom you associate or hang out. Control theory approaches origins of delinquency from a different angle — why do youth refrain from delinquent behavior?

The differential association theory tends to focus on who influences delinquent behavior whereas control theory focuses on who or what buffers against such behavior. Proponents of each theory argue which one is more significant in promoting delinquent behavior.

I have serious doubts this argument will be resolved so long as it’s limited to the question of causality. Family function, like school connectedness, is listed as one of several delinquency producing needs not so much because they directly cause delinquency, but because the lack of family support increases the influence of other, more direct, risk factors of delinquency — anti-social peers for example. These theories are not competitive — they are interconnected and should not be analyzed independently or else we risk not separating the trees from the forest.

Studies consistently show that the amount of time parents spend with their child will reduce, if not eliminate, anti-social peer influence. Other studies show less anti-social peer influence where there is greater parental supervision. But these same studies also show that attachment to parents is not a significant variable in reducing anti-social peer influence. The power of peer influence is reflected in these studies — although parental attachment is good, it’s not good enough. Parents must be involved in the life of their child, whether directly or indirectly using various supervisory techniques.

The vast majority of parents with children who come in contact with the juvenile justice system do care about their child, but can be broken into two groups — the equipped and ill-equipped parents. Unfortunately, many are ill-equipped for any number of reasons — fear, poverty, emotional immaturity, lack of parenting skills, or mental health needs.

The third group is smaller in number, but the most aggravating — the resistant parents. Here is the rub — its easy to confuse some of the equipped and ill-equipped with the resistant group leading some of us to think the resistant group is much larger. Take for instance the parent equipped with advocacy skills and not fearful of telling court staff or the judge what they think we should do with their child — and may be right on the mark. Whether we agree with them or not, they sometimes leave us with the impression of being a trouble-maker.

The ill-equipped parents may also come across as resistant in a passive-aggressive way. They present no problem in court and to that end they are perceived as cooperative. But when they leave court, they fail to comply with the court’s directives — participate in counseling with the child, take the child to a program, attend meetings with school staff or with the probation officer. The subsequent non-compliance may be perceived as aggressive despite their passive disposition at the outset — and sometimes we get mad at them thinking they are willfully disobeying a court order.

But many parents are noncompliant because they are ill-equipped to do what needs to be done — not because they are resistant to what needs to be done. I confess there are some parents who are just plain apathetic and bring even the most civil rights oriented persons like myself to the brink of constitutional insanity screaming to myself — “Sterilization, where art thou?” Within moments I return to a lucid state feeling ashamed for contemplating it.

My point — I am human, which means I am not without sin for I possess frailties. All the more reason we must construct our juvenile justice systems to include safeguards against unintended biases that can obstruct achieving our desired outcomes — prevention and rehabilitation.

I query how things may be different if we (the professionals) identify parents once involved in the system, who possess communicative skills, and train them to help the ill-equipped parents — and help us to understand them! Many courts use volunteers in many capacities — why not parents helping parents?

Take for example PEPP, Inc, which stands for “Parents Educating Parents and Professionals” in Douglasville, Ga., and Advocates for Justice and Education in the District of Columbia. These organizations train parents to navigate through the system and how to advocate — and these parents help other parents.

Parents are an untapped resource for juvenile justice practitioners. They can help us to understand the parental perspective while simultaneously helping parents to appreciate their own role in helping their child.

Just as peers have a strong influence on kids — so do parents with other parents. Let’s face it, no matter how much I think I am making sense in what I am telling a parent, in many cases I am not. Many parents who visit our courts are like the Charlie Brown characters and we are the parents — all they hear from us is “Mwah, mwah, mwah, mwah.”

We should find parents who have learned the language of “Mwah” and translate to parents in our courts — in a language they understand.

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