Family Involvement

On December 17, 2014, the Vera Institute of Justice convened its fifth juvenile justice briefing titled Working Together: Family Engagement with Juvenile Justice. This briefing is part of a larger Vera series, titled The State of Juvenile Justice: A National Conversation About Research, Results and Reform.

Watch a video of the event.

Vera’s Vice President and Chief Program Officer Dan Wilhelm served as moderator and welcomed panelists and Congressional staff during the morning and afternoon panels. Panelists included Margaret diZerega, director of Vera’s Family Justice Program, Wendy Luckenbill, senior recovery and resilience specialist for the Community Care Behavioral Health Organization, and Ryan Ward, senior program associate for the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute. Mr. Wilhelm opened the panels by commenting that juvenile justice systems often construct barriers between incarcerated youth and their families that are often difficult to overcome, which can lead to detrimental outcomes for youth. Though these barriers exist, Mr. Wilhelm noted that jurisdictions are beginning to recognize that families can serve as a source of strength for youth, which can lead them down more productive pathways.

Ms. diZerega of Vera discussed the importance of family engagement for incarcerated youth, noting that research consistently shows that family involvement correlates to improved outcomes for incarcerated youth (e.g., better performance in school, improved behavior). Ms. diZerega also commented that the definitions of “family” and “family engagement” should be expanded to include persons beyond a youth’s blood relations. As such, “family” should encompass whomever the young person considers to be a support in their life, including his or her own children. Ms. diZerega concluded her presentation by highlighting promising work on family engagement that Vera has done including helping develop national standards for family engagement in juvenile facilities, implementing the Vera-created Juvenile Relational Inquiry Tool (JRIT) in Ohio to help facilities think about social supports for youth, and conducting research in Indiana on the state's new visitation policies which allow families to visit anytime except for when the young person is in school.

Based in Pennsylvania, Ms. Luckenbill is a state and national family engagement advocate who works to help families understand the juvenile justice system and assist them in maintaining involvement with their incarcerated loved one. To address a dearth of literature on how to build and sustain family engagement within the juvenile justice system, Ms. Luckenbill and her team convened over 200 cross-system and agency stakeholders to identify what the strengths and weaknesses of the Pennsylvania juvenile system.  The work led to a 2009 publication, Family Involvement in Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Justice System, which identified unifying guidelines and principles for family engagement. The publication identifies five core guidelines and corresponding principles that national juvenile jurisdictions can use to bolster their family engagement practices including: urging jurisdictions to provide families early access to interventions, emphasizing a need for system stakeholders to communicate respect to families of incarcerated youth, and ensuring that states embed family engagement processes into their internal structures and strategies.

Ryan Ward, a registered member of the Cowlitz Tribe of Indians in Washington State, began his conversation by highlighting the fact that although native youth are incarcerated in state and federal justice systems, national conversations often over look them and their distinct cultural needs since they form a relatively small population. Mr. Ward stressed that in native cultures, families are crucial, with youth often forming their identities based on familial connections that may extend to include those with aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Mr. Ward also provided stark statistics regarding the declining outcomes that native youth have in their communities (they are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide, and experience rates of post traumatic stress disorder at three times the national rate). Given that the majority of native youth live off of reservations, they interact with the state and federal justice system quite often. When state and federal governments incarcerate native youth though, they are often ill-equipped with both knowledge and resources to adequately address the important role native youth’s familial and cultural connections can have in their lives and outcomes. Mr. Ward closed his presentation by calling upon the federal government to design solutions for incarcerated native youth that are aligned to these cultural values. Finally, Mr. Ward pressed the federal government to recall its Federal Trust Responsibility to native nations which obliges it to provide for housing, safety, and basic needs of native people, which Mr. Ward stated also encompasses juvenile justice and the government’s incarceration of native youth.