May | June 2012

Engaging Families as Valued Partners in the Juvenile Justice System

Children in the juvenile justice system are often removed from their homes and schools to facilities outside their community and, as a result, they are separated from caring adults who know them well. These adults, who may include a biological parent, a grandparent, an aunt, coach, or other mentor, are important to a child's rehabilitation, recovery, and healing. In many cases, they will also be the primary source of support once youth reenter their communities. Regular input from a youth's family—whether biological or "chosen"—is key to successful outcomes for youth at all points in the juvenile justice spectrum. Yet, too often, families are kept at the margins, whether in the courts, in the development of a case plan, or in reentry services.

In July 2011, the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention identified family engagement as a major item for consideration and action. Administered by OJJDP, the council brings together senior officials from the U.S. Departments of Justice (DOJ), Education (ED), Health and Human Services (HHS), Labor (DOL), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and other federal agencies to share information and resources, and to work toward the enhancement and reform of policies and practices on a range of critical issues facing at-risk children as well as youth involved in the justice system.

Photo of Attorney General Eric Holder meeting with families of incarcerated youth.
On May 11, 2012, families of currently or previously incarcerated youth met with Attorney General Eric Holder to offer recommendations for improving the juvenile justice system.
At its May 11, 2012, meeting, the council heard from parent activists whose children are or were previously involved in the juvenile justice system. On a panel entitled "Update on Changing Practice: Family and Field Perspectives," Grace Warren, co-director of the Campaign for Youth Justice's National Parent Caucus, described challenges many parents face, including insufficient access to prevention and intervention programs when children first show symptoms of trouble; difficulty obtaining information about a child's status while incarcerated; unsafe conditions for youth in custody, especially for those detained in adult facilities; and insufficient alternatives to incarceration. Following the panel, family members met with Attorney General Eric Holder in his office at DOJ headquarters. They offered their recommendations for improving the justice system and set up a process for ongoing dialog with the Attorney General. 

Cover of Safety, Fairness, Stability: Repositioning Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare to Engage Families and CommunitiesThe council meeting also included reports from members of a federal workgroup on recent activities to elevate family engagement as a priority within their respective agencies and to recommend ways that family engagement and partnerships can be advanced at the federal level.

The workgroup is composed of staff from OJJDP, HHS, and ED; over the past 18 months, it has shared ideas and strategies and collaborated with Georgetown University's Center for Juvenile Justice Reform (CJJR). A CJJR monograph, Safety, Fairness, Stability: Repositioning Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare to Engage Families and Communities, released in May 2011, outlines a vision for fostering the interpersonal connections of youth and families so that significant relationships are maintained or restored. In November 2011, CJJR released a set of detailed recommendations to federal agencies that were developed with workgroup members and other stakeholders. The recommendations cover a range of topics, including creating and embedding family-focused policies and practices in the work of federal agencies, building infrastructure to formally include families in the development and implementation of policies and practices, and supporting families to become more effective advocates.

left quoteWe do our best work if families are at our core, not on the periphery.right quote

—Shay Bilchik, Director,
Center for Juvenile Justice Reform

Workgroup representatives providing reports were Melodee Hanes, OJJDP's Acting Administrator and vice-chair of the council; David Esquith, Acting Director of ED's Office of Safe and Healthy Students; Larke Huang, Senior Advisor on Children at HHS's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; Martha Moorehouse, Director of the Children and Youth Policy Division in HHS's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation; and Joe Bock, Acting Associate Commissioner of HHS's Children's Bureau.

Hanes reported that OJJDP activities and accomplishments include:

  • Grants to organizations that provide parent-to-parent support and mentoring for families learning to navigate the juvenile justice system.
  • OJJDP requirements that grantees include youth and family members on their governing or advisory boards and their planning collaboratives.
  • Listening sessions in the spring and summer of 2011 with youth and family members from across the country.
  • Inclusion of youth and family representatives in trainings and conferences, notably OJJDP's National Conference for Children's Justice and Safety in October 2011 and DOJ's annual tribal youth summits.
  • OJJDP's launch in late 2011 of the National Center for Youth in Custody. The center embraces youth, family, and community engagement in its support of youth facilities and has placed family and youth representatives on its advisory body.
  • The incorporation of family and youth perspectives in several DOJ signature initiatives, such as Defending Childhood, the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, and the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention.
  • The recent establishment of an OJJDP staff working group to develop and coordinate activities related to youth and family engagement across OJJDP.
  • OJJDP staff training on family and youth engagement.

Hanes also summarized action items agreed to be undertaken jointly by the DOJ-HHS-ED workgroup:

  • Disseminating and discussing recommendations from the CJJR report.
  • Developing a proposal for a parent-youth committee on the council.
  • Improving coordination among the participating agencies on existing activities and sharing and mentoring one another on successful strategies.
  • Targeting initial work in the area of family engagement to youth in juvenile justice residential facilities and their families because the issues affecting justice system-involved youth also touch nearly all systems represented by the council, including child welfare, mental health, education, labor, and housing.

"We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that when children come into our systems we can and should separate them from their families," said CJJR Director Shay Bilchik at the council meeting. "We need to think about how to help youth navigate those families—to build on the families' strengths, and help overcome the weaknesses. We do our best work if families are at our core, not on the periphery."

Resources:

CJJR's report, Safety, Fairness, Stability: Repositioning Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare to Engage Families and Communities, is available on the center's Web site. For more information about the listening sessions on family engagement hosted by OJJDP, read the July/August 2011 issue of OJJDP News @ a Glance.