Families are Key to Juvenile Justice Reform

Drug use among youth is a serious concern that cannot be solved by punishment. So it’s great to see the juvenile justice field increasingly considering and involving families. For example, the New York Governor’s Task Force on Transforming Juvenile Justice recently published a report that is replete with recommendations underscoring the importance of family. The report, developed with support from my colleagues at Vera’s Center on Youth Justice, reminded me of a comment by Derek Hitchcock of the Michigan Bureau of Juvenile Justice, who said, “We so often institutionalize our kids; any way to get them linking back to the outside is great.”
Vera’s Family Justice Program shares this goal, which helps drive our work with juvenile justice agencies, guiding them as they integrate family-focused, strength-based tools and methods that benefit incarcerated youth.
Sometimes, facility staff resist the idea of working with families, but it usually doesn’t take long before we’re discussing the benefits. I often just have to ask, “Who is the first person to know when a young person has relapsed?” or “When kids succeed, who celebrates with them?” Even if every family member does not provide support to a young person, identifying those individuals who do is important to the youth’s recovery and well-being.

And in many cases, staff already believe they should talk with youth about their family; they just don’t know how to do it. At Family Justice, we have learned that this communication is more successful if people recognize the multigenerational patterns of addiction and draw out a family’s strengths in ways that help support the youth’s recovery.
To help staff talk with young people about their social support, Family Justice developed the Juvenile Relational Inquiry Tool last year in partnership with youth corrections agencies in Arizona, Ohio, and Michigan, and with funding from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). The tool is a series of eight questions that help staff initiate conversations about social support. The questions help determine how young people define their family—often broadly, to include pastors, coaches, neighbors, and friends—and how these loved ones can support the youth during incarceration and throughout the reentry process. The tool could also allow corrections and community corrections staff to share this information so that it does not get left behind in a folder and instead helps a young person during the reentry process.
If a facility wants to effectively integrate this tool (or something like it) into its work, its leaders may want to consider changes in policy and practice that encourage more family participation. The Family Justice Program offers staff trainings on how to gather useful information through methods such as family mapping tools and forms that prompt staff to talk with young people about gang affiliation. By capitalizing on the knowledge and expertise of incarcerated youth, their families, and staff, we work to help ensure that these changes are sustainable. For more information about the tool and how the Family Justice Program uses it, please contact me

juvenile-justice-reform_Ryan-Shanahan-at-Vera-Institute-of-JusticeRyan Shanahan is a senior program associate for the Family Justice Program at the Vera Institute of Justice. Before joining Vera, she was a project director at Family Justice and helped develop tools that allow staff at juvenile justice agencies and community-based organizations to gather information about youth and their social supports. Ryan has worked with youth-serving agencies in Philadelphia, Queens, and Washington, D.C. She has a master of arts from the University of Maryland’s Department of Women’s Studies, where she is working toward a doctorate on the impact of race and racism on young people’s experiences in the sex trade.

Updated: March 21 2018