Report: Make Families of Detained Juveniles Part of the Solution

Every day, nearly 50,000 children are forced to spend the night away from their families because of their involvement in the juvenile justice system, according to a new report.

It’s not as if these youth have no one to care for them. Families of young detainees care deeply about their children, but often feel helpless when their children get into trouble -- especially in the face of high adult incarceration rates, zero-tolerance school policies and reduced social services, which can make it difficult for families to offer support. Add to this a juvenile court system that practically shuts out family members from receiving or offering input, and the feelings of frustration and helplessness multiply.

These are the findings of Families Unlocking Futures: Solutions to the Crisis in Juvenile Justice, a report released Monday that offers a blueprint for reforms that involve family members at every step when a child gets into trouble, whether at school or in the juvenile justice system. It’s based on the belief that timely and appropriate intervention, with the help of families, can prevent the inexorable march for some children from school to juvenile court, and ease their transition from detention back into society.

Such detention doesn’t just take an economic and mental toll on detainees and their families; it also affects taxpayers and state budgets. Each day a youth spent in a juvenile facility cost taxpayers $241 in 2007, the report finds. Multiplied by 64,558 youth, states across the county spent a total of $5.7 billion for detention that year.

Family members surveyed for the report said they frequently felt ignored at proceedings in juvenile courts, overlooked by probation staff and shut out of their children’s lives in correctional facilities, even when it was time for their children to be released.

Eighty-one percent of family members surveyed said they wanted to learn about their children’s court dates in a more timely fashion. Eighty-five percent wanted court appearances to be held at a time when it was easier for them to attend. Ninety-one percent thought courts should involve them in deciding what happens with their child if he is found guilty.

Once their children were in detention, 75 percent of family members said they faced serious obstacles to visitation, and more than 50 percent said they found it difficult to reach facility staff who could tell them how their child was doing. Only 32 percent said juvenile justice professionals discussed their child’s release plans with them before release.

“Kids are told, ‘It’s your release day. Grab your clothes, it’s time to go,’” said one California parent quoted in the report. “This is poor planning on the part of systems and only sets the kids up for failure.”

Getting children back into school after their release was either “difficult” or “very difficult” for 69 percent of those surveyed.

The report makes several recommendations for juvenile courts to solve this large-scale lack of communication with families.

“A young person’s parents and family should not only be invited, but also encouraged to participate in school disciplinary hearings, and in juvenile court diversion, detention, adjudication, and dispositional hearings,” the report says.

Parents should be notified when a school is considering suspension or other disciplinary procedures; when a student is arrested; and they should be told where their child is being held. Families should receive guidance through the court process; be allowed flexible visiting hours; and charged affordable calling rates to ensure more frequent phone contact with their children, the report recommends.

The blueprint further calls for wide-ranging reform of the juvenile justice system, including eliminating zero-tolerance and stop-and-frisk policies, decriminalizing status offenses and drug possession, and encouraging a restorative justice approach to youth courts.

Released by Justice for Families, a national alliance of organizations that work with relatives of children involved in the juvenile justice system, the report’s recommendations are based on findings from a survey of 1,000 family members across nine states, from 24 focus groups involving 152 youth and their family members across nine states, and from a review of hundreds of news and academic articles on juvenile justice.

Photo by Justice For Families

Webcast Explores How Courts Can Better Serve Overall ‘Well-Being’ of Children

After years of focusing on the safety of children, the nation's juvenile courts are shifting to a more holistic approach that takes into account the emotional, social and academic well-being of at-risk youth.

That effort, which has been underway for at least a year, will be showcased Thursday during a webcast moderated by David Kelly, head of the federal Department of Health and Human Services child protection programs.

The crux of the webcast, which starts at 2 p.m. EDT, is to explore how the courts, which are so used to patrolling a child's safety, can attend to the mental, social and physical "well-being" of a child. More precisely, the effort will vet 14 specific measurements that were developed by a committee last summer to ensure the courts are meeting every need of a child - not simply plucking them from dangerous homes or removing risky parents from their lives.

About 400 people, many of them judges, attorneys and court administrators, are expected to tune into the webcast.

Also participating will be Gene Flango and Nora Sydow of the National Resource Center and National Center for State Courts; Evan Klain, who is director of child welfare for the ABA's Center on Children and the Law; Associate Judge Robert Hofmann of Mason County, Texas; and Sandra Moore, head of Pennsylvania's state office of Children and Families in the Court.

Much attention has been paid over the years to punitive measures for juveniles and protective measures that focused, almost singularly, on a child's safety. The idea was to remove them from at-risk situations, ensure the efficiency of moving children through the system and stopping the cycle of re-abuse.

Ignored along the way were educational attainment, social adaptation and mental health. That, according to people involved in Thursday's program, is the exact idea behind the 14 measures that will be discussed as part of a wider effort to comply with federal law - chiefly the 1997 Federal Adoption and Safe Families Act.

Eric Ferkenhoff is the editor of The Chicago Bureau.

Families of Incarcerated Youth Demand Say in ‘Dysfunctional’ System

Jeannette Bocanegra, a community organizer from New York City, told a gathering of juvenile justice system practitioners and advocates in Houston last week that as a mom with a child who was incarcerated, “This system made me feel like I was a dysfunctional parent, a bad parent … without realizing I raised six other children who never went into the system.”

Now she and other members of Justice for Families, an advocacy group, are out to prove that, in her words, “We are not dysfunctional … the system is dysfunctional.”

Liane Rozzell

Liane Rozzell, another parent on the panel, said afterwards, “We don’t have 24-hour remote control over our children.”

During the panel discussion, Rozzell said when her son was first put into detention she thought it might be a good thing, it would teach him a lesson. But she did not realize how negatively he would be affected by the experience.

She also recalled being in a meeting where a teacher from a correctional institution off handedly mentioned sending kids to “an inherently violent place like a juvenile correctional center.”
After hearing that phrase, Rozzell said, “I was just stunned that we can just casually talk about sending our children to an inherently violent place.”

Grace Bauer

In June, Justice for Families will be releasing an in-depth report, underwritten by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The report includes results of a survey of 1,000 family members who have had children incarcerated and examines how families of the incarcerated are portrayed by the media.

Justice for Families co-director Grace Bauer says family involvement and networking is necessary because, “No one knows what it is like to struggle with a child in the system better than another parent.”

However, according to Bauer, early findings from the report reveal, “Families are not consulted. Seventy-nine percent of our families reported that they were never asked by a probation officer about what should happen to their loved one. Eighty-six percent reported not being asked by a judge about what should happen to their loved ones.
“In the juvenile justice system,” Bauer said, “families are often ignored and blamed for their children’s involvement in the system rather than given the support and information necessary to make the best decisions for their children.”

Grace Warren

Logistics problems and humiliation are also part of having a family member incarcerated. Grace Warren, a mother from Chicago, told of the five and a half hour one-way drive to see her imprisoned adult son, always with the threat of the visit being denied because of perhaps being just 15 minutes late or by not dressing appropriately – indeed she always brings a second set of clothes. But for her the worse part is the physical search and sometimes having to lift her clothes to show her underwear. She says, “You already searched me, I went through a metal detector and now I have to raise my clothes up. I just feel violated when it gets to that point.”

Ernest Johnson

Afterwards, Louis Castillo, director of detentions in El Paso, Texas, said he wished the panel composed of family advocates would have been a little more balanced. He said rules like set visitation times are a consequence of needing security, adding, “there will be some inconvenience to maintain that security."

Ernest Johnson, a parent from New Orleans, told the audience, many of whom were judges, prosecutors and probation managers, that families of the incarcerated, outside of the system context, cannot be distinguished from the society as a whole.

He told the gathering, “We were here with you all for the last two days and we had the opportunity to sit next to some of you all and up until this morning you did not know whether or not if
we were a judge or district attorney.”