A Restorative Justice Process for the Family When Juveniles Are Freed From Incarceration

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Youth who feel connected to their families have a better chance of developing and achieving their goals. And this is certainly true for teens returning home after incarceration, when family reunification is a crucial element for successful reentry.

But just being back together under the same roof isn’t enough to guarantee a favorable outcome, even when everyone yearns for positive change. In fact, too many teens return home from residential placement to well-meaning families who haven’t received adequate guidance about reintegrating and truly making it work. This greatly increases the risk of recidivism, which further harms the teen, the family and the community.

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Arriving home after incarceration is a delicate time, with a high risk of reoffending. Just as a bird suddenly let out of a cage will begin flying into the walls, so, too, a teen released from placement can quickly spin out of control with the excitement of newly found freedom. Liberty can quickly degenerate into the revolving door of repeated incarceration if the adjustment back home isn’t well-structured right from the start.

The family’s enormous needs at the time of reentry include finding ways to effectively communicate, change old patterns, begin the healing process, tap into resources and design new, detailed plans for every aspect of the teen’s life. But many families don’t know how to begin identifying or addressing these needs. They are just trying to hold on, reeling from the trauma of what they’ve gone through with their teen and the stress of being separated.

Teens and families who are apart due to incarceration experience tremendous upheaval as they lose control of a part of their lives. As soon as the teen is arrested, the role of the family is usurped by the juvenile justice system. The authority that the family once had to make their own decisions is suddenly turned over to outside authorities.

This leaves the family feeling disconnected, disempowered and unable to advocate for their child. And to make matters even more challenging, parents may fear they are viewed as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Indeed, they may personally feel that they have failed and that their teen has failed them.

These feelings of inadequacy, insignificance and ineffectuality must not continue within the family once the teen returns home, otherwise the chances of repeated problems will be high. Instead, as the system releases the teen back to the family, they all need support to feel confident and capable as they reclaim their power through their reunification.

During this tender transition, it is crucial that a shift occurs for the teen and family, away from old, dysfunctional patterns, and into new ways to be together, ways that foster collaboration, closeness and a clearly defined direction for positive change. Something very tangible has to be put in place, and this can begin to happen within the structure of a Family Reentry Meeting.

A Family Reentry Meeting is a facilitated restorative justice dialogue that brings together family members with their teen who is returning home from placement. The meeting may also include a probation officer, staff from the placement facility, teacher, mentor, clergy, close friends, social worker and others who support the reintegration process. All participants are there on a voluntary basis, contributing to the conversation, with the goal of working toward family reconciliation with the teen, and the development of a specific plan for every aspect of the teen’s life.

[Related: The Revolution That Restorative Detention Can Be]

The three-hour Family Reentry Meeting is facilitated to focus on the positive, on concrete solutions, on healing in order to move forward with a clear direction, renewed hope and motivation. The first half of the meeting addresses family reconciliation, which lays the crucial foundation for the second half, which focuses on creating a detailed, written reentry plan. This plan covers every aspect of the teen’s life, and how the family will specifically offer support regarding education, substance treatment, counseling, friends, free time, pro-social activities, employment, support networks, transportation, family time and goals.

With the detailed plan, everyone knows exactly what to do to make things happen upon reentry, so that nothing is left to chance. There is a strong probability that the family and teen will follow the plan because they developed it, they own it and they all agreed to it. The plan makes sense to them, on their terms, so they feel respected, empowered and dedicated to follow through. The plan also includes a date for a follow-up Family Reentry Meeting, to celebrate successes and to continue working on areas where support is needed.

The Family Reentry Meeting concludes by having each participant fill in a written evaluation. The vast majority of comments shared at this time indicate successful transformation toward profound optimism, as is evidenced in these testimonials from one family who participated:

From the person re-entering: “It gave me the chance to reconnect with my family and understand different aspects of my addiction. My family offered me support and they see that I’m for real about doing better. Hearing how you’ve affected the ones you love has a profound effect. You can learn that people are still there for you. The written reentry plan will hold people accountable for their agreements and gives something to look back on. I thought it was awesome and I’m glad I did it. My heart feels full of love and it’s motivating.”

From the mother: “I’m appreciative of the opportunity to gather my family. It gave each person a voice and a way to talk in a calm way about difficult things. It’s always good to feel like you’ve been seen, heard and appreciated. My son seems centered and aware. I believe that he is making good choices, is dedicated to doing well and reclaiming his place in the family. The process is a chance for healing, getting things off your chest, limit-setting and planning. It has a structure that is based on positive energy so it’s safe and productive. It set us up to work together.”

From the stepfather: “This was very positive. It gave me a chance to express myself in a safe environment, to face him and tell them him how he affected me and my relationships. It takes a village to raise a child, but families can help the ones that have fallen. Hopefully this will encourage him to have a positive outlook on the future.”

From the brother-in-law: “I feel hopeful and relieved. I haven’t seen my brother-in-law in some time and would not have given him the chance that I will now if it weren’t for this process. Reconciliation took place today.”

From the sister: “This meeting was very important. I really can’t say how much it meant to me to be able to do this. You may NEVER have this kind of opportunity — to sit and talk safely about everything you need to — again. It was a calm, honest environment where we all got to share and hear each other. The written reentry plan is a motivational tool, a symbol of a loving time shared to create a better future for us. It was a lot like a reunion of family members who had made their lives so separated from past drama and issues. The people who were invited showed up, and changed our outlook from wanting nothing to do with him to feeling excited and ready to support him in any way possible. It’s a very positive experience, life-changing really.”

Vicki Assegued, M.A., has a Master’s degree in Restorative Justice and Conflict Resolution. She is a Restorative Justice Program developer, director and trainer, for the juvenile and criminal justice systems, various organizations and for secondary and higher education. She can be reached at vicki@cruzio.com.

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