With a new year upon us, now is the ideal time for juvenile justice practitioners to reflect upon their work and set goals for the months to come. In our view, arguably no objective in juvenile justice practice is as important as the engagement of families of system-involved youth. This is especially the case for the tens of thousands of youth placed in residential facilities all across the country who are separated from their loved ones.
In the past few decades, juvenile justice staff and partners have increasingly recognized that engaging families in the juvenile justice system leads to better outcomes for youth. These effects are especially significant for youth held in juvenile detention and correctional facilities, as studies have shown that engaging families can improve youth’s behavior and academic performance at the facility and reduce the prevalence and severity of reoffending in the community.
Engaging and empowering families in juvenile justice is not without its challenges. Many staff continue to perceive families in a deficit-based manner, viewing them as the root of the youth’s delinquency, rather than as fundamental partners. Other systemic barriers often stand in the way of family engagement, such as the fact that many youth are placed in facilities far from their home communities, making ongoing connections with family difficult.
Despite these obstacles, an increasing number of jurisdictions around the U.S. are taking great strides to promote family engagement for youth in custody. For nearly three years, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform and the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators have operated the Youth in Custody Practice Model initiative, a project designed to help juvenile justice agencies enhance their policies and practices at detention and correctional facilities and upon community reentry. Seven agencies from various state and county jurisdictions around the country have participated in the initiative to date, with another four to be added in the spring.
From this experience, as well as our work hosting the Youth in Custody Certificate Program, a weeklong intensive training at Georgetown University, we have seen agencies and facilities boost the ways they engage and empower families. Here are four overarching strategies that systems have implemented and that agency leaders and staff should consider as they set their strategic plans for 2019:
Broadly defining and identifying families
Historically, the juvenile justice field generally has defined “family” in a restrictive manner, limiting the definition to those individuals related to the youth by blood or through marriage. In reality, system-involved youth come from various family structures and backgrounds, and often are connected to individuals who, while not relatives, nevertheless provide critical support. Neglecting to engage those key supporters is simply a missed opportunity.
Many of the juvenile correctional agency and facility staff we have worked with have sought to redefine their policies to include a more expansive definition of policy, one that defines “family” as those individuals with whom the youth has a positive, stable and supportive relationship. This might include parents, grandparents, siblings and other blood relatives, but it also might include other pro-social, caring individuals such as mentors, clergy members, educators and other so-called “fictive kin.”
As a complementary strategy, system staff have also focused on enhancing the ways they identify these individuals in order to involve them in case planning and service delivery. Juvenile justice agencies have utilized instruments to support this process, such as the Juvenile Relational Inquiry Tool, a series of open-ended questions developed by the Vera Institute of Justice, to help to identify the youth’s support systems. Others have used the Family Finding model and technology, more commonly seen in child welfare contexts, to extend the potential kinship network.
Facilitating family connections
Recognizing the research indicating the positive impact of family connections while the youth is in placement, many agency and facility staff we have worked with have also striven to increase family visitation and communication. For many families, visiting their children while they are in custody is extremely difficult due to lack of transportation or the inability to take time off from work. These challenges may be further compounded by facility policies that limit visitation as a disciplinary measure or by facility environments that are not welcoming or conducive to meaningful youth-family connections.
We have worked with juvenile justice facility staff all around the U.S. who are making it easier for families to maintain ongoing communication with their children. Strategies they have implemented have included: offering visitation schedules that are flexible and not limited to work hours; providing transportation to the facility at no charge to families; reshaping facility environments to make them warmer, brighter and inviting to families, including those who may have young children; hosting family events at the facility; and extending additional communication options such as the use of videoconferencing for families unable to travel.
Engaging families in case planning
Of course, facilitating connections with families is just the starting point. Once connected, families must be engaged in the juvenile justice process in a meaningful way. This requires staff to view and treat family members as valued partners, ensuring that their opinions are heard and their needs are met. This is an especially daunting task at the facility level, where the differential of power between system officials, youth and families — whether perceived or actual — can be stark.
Again, we have seen detention and correctional facilities move toward implementing more strength-based, family-centered approaches. Several systems have redesigned their case planning efforts to ensure that highly trained facilitators establish positive meeting environments where youth and families can voice their desires, needs and concerns, and where their strengths and assets are prominently featured. Agencies have also sought to provide services directly to the families themselves, such as parenting education, counseling, and assistance with housing.
We have also partnered with an increasing number of systems that are investing in staff training focused on refining staff’s relationship-building and communication skills; the evidence-based motivational interviewing is one such technique facility staff are using to enhance the way they interact and engage with youth and families.
Empowering the family voice
A fourth strategy we have seen in this area is the empowerment of families to inspire and guide reform efforts at the facility and in the community. Families are experts not only on their children but also on the strengths and challenges of the juvenile justice system. Thus, it is incumbent on juvenile justice staff and partners to consider their valuable insight.
To this end, we have witnessed systems enhance the ways they are partnering with families to retrieve and act upon their recommendations for system improvement. Many facilities now regularly survey families on facility-based practices and supports, including those involved with Performance-based Standards, and have also designated staff to serve as family liaisons at the facility to provide additional support to families. Some agencies have also established strong relationships with local family advocacy organizations that weigh in on how to improve juvenile justice policy and practice.
The implementation of these four strategies represents great progress in the field. Nevertheless, more work remains. Unfortunately, many systems across the U.S. do not yet fully implement these types of family-centered efforts for youth in custody.
Family engagement and empowerment is not something achieved through a singular change to policy or practice. Rather, it requires an ongoing and relentless commitment to valuing and treating families as collaborative system partners. In setting forth their plans for the new year, juvenile justice practitioners must not lose sight of this critically important goal.
Hannah Oppermann is a research assistant at the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform. She is currently pursuing her Master of Arts in public anthropology at American University.
Michael Umpierre is a faculty member at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University and senior research fellow at the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform.
Shay Bilchik is the founder and director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Safety.