In 2006, the mother of a teenage daughter involved in the juvenile justice system in Hawaii contacted a small, non-profit in Lake Charles, La., more than 4,000 miles away. The mother was seeking support from someone who could understand her plight in navigating the juvenile justice system and possibly help her find the treatment and services her daughter desperately needed. Her search, to find someone who had experienced the same challenges, took months of calls, letters, emails and Internet searches. Her efforts and lack of response left her hopeless.
Fast-forward seven years. On the morning of May 5, 2013 I received three email messages from Atlanta, New Orleans, Louisiana and Houston, Texas. All three emails contained the same plea for help from a mother in Minnesota. Like the mother before her and the hundreds in the years between the two, she was searching for someone she could trust to figure out how to help her son who was involved in the juvenile justice system because of a truancy charge.
I wanted to believe that over the course of the next few days I would be able to identify a person who had knowledge of local resources, could be there with her in person and answer Minnesota-specific questions ( or better still, county-specific). I immediately began an Internet search, and sent out several emails to people who might be able to help or at least know who could. During the next week, I learned that the mother had sent out nearly 100 emails to anyone she thought might be able to help. Her 100 and my five all produced the same results, nothing useful. It would take several more days before I was able to locate someone who was willing to drive the hour and a half to be with her in court for the hearing that would determine whether her son was sent to a youth prison or allowed to return home. While the absurdity of a truancy case ending in placement in a youth prison is difficult to ignore, my immediate concern for this mother was that she find quality support and advocacy.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of families encounter the juvenile justice system. For some, fortunately, it is a brief encounter. For others, they must learn to navigate a system that often views families as the cause of their child’s delinquency, and is ill equipped to meaningfully engage those with the greatest potential to positively influence their child and their child’s behavior. While the education, mental health and special education systems have discovered the numerous benefits of involving the families of children they serve, juvenile justice systems have been slow to embrace families and provide the supports and services needed to yield better outcomes.
Research in other child serving systems (mental health, education, etc.) has shown positive benefits to the child, the family and the system of care. For the child and their family, benefits include better quality of life outcomes, gains for disadvantaged students and increased family satisfaction with services. For systems of care, the advantages are greater staff satisfaction, improvement in work environment, reduced use of more costly and restrictive services and increased accountability and coordination of services. Numerous family listening sessions, surveys and focus groups over the last decade, conducted and/or funded by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), advocacy organizations and researchers, all reach the same conclusions. From the parent and family perspective, readily available and easy to access to parent-to-parent support is needed, along with more opportunities for family voice to be included at policy level decision-making points.
Last year, information collected from over a thousand intensive surveys and focus groups with families in 20 sites around the country, was compiled in a report, “Families Unlocking Futures: Solutions to the Crisis in Juvenile Justice.” This report captured the unique perspectives of families and the barriers they face in helping their children succeed once they become system-involved. The report was the collective effort of organizations from around the country that organize families and young people who are impacted by the juvenile justice system. Justice for Families, a family driven national alliance, serves as a hub to connect these groups and their work.
Several states have been out front on this issue, including Texas and Pennsylvania. Texas has worked with families to create a Parent’s Bill of Rights and Pennsylvania is training probation staff on family engagement, utilizing family members. The Campaign for Youth Justice recently released a workbook for partnering with families entitled “Family Comes First.” The workbook includes examples of best practices and the framework necessary for meaningful family involvement. The Center for Juvenile Justice Reform released a paper and a comprehensive set of recommendations in 2011 entitled, “Safety, Fairness and Stability: Repositioning Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare to Engage Families and Communities.” The recommendations addressed needed changes at the federal, state and local level.
All of the reports, mentioned above, contain recommendations and next steps necessary to improve the lives of children, their families and the systems of care. We have the research that demonstrates the need and benefits of such efforts. We have families who stand ready to lend their expertise to the work ahead. With a strong need and an abundance of information to guide us, we ask OJJDP to move with a sense of urgency to create and implement a set of guidelines on family involvement, to guide and inform the juvenile justice field.