One of the biggest issues facing juvenile justice professionals is how to increase family involvement. Yesterday, I had a mom who is facing having her 12 year old daughter in residential care ask me about family. How much can they be involved? Are there blackout periods for phone calls or visiting? Will they be allowed to participate in holiday events with their daughter once she is with our agency? The list went on and on. The crux of her concern was how to continue being her daughter’s advocate and parent while she is away. This is a common theme of the questions that I get asked. I’m pleased to be able to answer that we are a family-oriented treatment setting. We encourage as much family participation as possible. We will even help jump through the hoops to get the family on-site as often as possible. In our treatment approach, we recognize that children need their families and families need their children. Relationships need to be strengthened if a child and family are to heal and become healthy. For us to be successful at what we do, we have to include the family as heavily as possible. Unfortunately this is not always the case when it comes to juveniles who are institutionalized whether they are in the criminal or mental health setting.
It truly does take a village to raise a child. Community members, school personnel, religious leaders, youth advocates and juvenile justice professionals, including police officers are all part of this needed village. Here are a few concepts and barriers that must be addressed for juvenile justice to truly embrace and encourage family involvement.
Understanding it is Crucial
Research shows that family involvement is a key factor is positive outcomes for juveniles. This involvement is even more critical when a juvenile has mental health issues. Often when a child lands in the juvenile justice system, we as professionals have already missed numerous opportunities to reach out to families and invite their involvement. We have the ability to encourage them to be informed, engaged and invested in their child. Unfortunately, too often family members have had bad experiences and are apathetic to the system. They do not feel like they are an equal partner in their child’s care and control. They feel as if they do not have a voice. When we understand how important it is, we are able to reach out to them, empower them and improve outcomes for the child.
Respect is Critical
Too often, law enforcement officers get caught up in cynicism when it comes to the juveniles and their families that they come in contact with. It’s easy to sink into the stereotype that parents are not involved and often absent, or when they are there they are caught up in their own issues and crimes, and all of these factors make them a liability and not a resource for the child. Many times, it seems it would be just easier to not have to deal with the family if possible. Just get the child and go. Unfortunately, neglectful, uninterested parents are often the exception and all parents are being treated as if this were the rule. Most families are not dysfunctional. Many face multiple challenges but they care to understand their issues and would embrace assistance in overcoming them. Juvenile justice professionals should respect and support family members. At the same time, family members should respect and support juvenile justice professionals as well. Much of the disconnect and tearing down of stereotypes can occur just by listening so the families that do want to be involved can be capitalized on.
Awareness of Resources
When you respond on a juvenile and engage with an involved family, know what kind of family involvement your system has. If it’s strong, let the family know what to expect, like getting assigned a caseworker who will be available to answer questions. If it needs some work, forge partnerships to strengthen it using successful, evidence-based models like the ones in Pennsylvania and Texas. As the first line, an officer has the opportunity to start a juvenile’s case with a strong family involvement foundation. Most programs have informational pamphlets. Keep a few with you to give out. The juvenile justice system is an entire system of care and the more information placed in the hands of the public, the better served our communities can be.
A concerning issue in many neighborhoods is the inability of the parents to communicate with juvenile justice professionals due to language barriers. It is hard enough when a family faces challenges due to not understand the system, but when a mother or father cannot speak the same language as those within the system it increases family disconnect. As professionals, law enforcement is improving and more bilingual officers are on the streets. Although many people feel that those living in our communities should speak English, during a crisis with their child is not the time to enforce those views. Assisting a family with someone who can explain the process and what is happening can pay huge dividends in their ability to be involved with their child’s case and improved outcome.
It is not a secret that families who are involved with their children have children who are happier, more secure and successful. Even if a child finds themselves involved in the juvenile justice system, if they have parents interested, involved and engaged, outcomes improve. It also makes the case easier for the system as they have more resources to help hold the child accountable and make changes. If we, as juvenile justice professional make sure to remember that family involvement is essential and take steps to make that easier, we can significantly improve the lives of children.