The National Parent Caucus; Meeting the Needs of Forgotten Families

juvenile-justice-reform_forget-backwardsBeginning in 1998, with my son's first arrest at the age of 12, I embarked on a journey that I was ill-equipped to handle. When I gave birth to my children, I had high hopes and dreams for them -- this arrest and the succeeding problems that lay ahead for him were never a part of those hopes and dreams.
I, like most family members who find themselves involved in the juvenile and criminal justice systems, was incredibly naive and made decisions based on what system professionals told me, never considering that it wasn't their job to help my son. Those decisions set a predictable course for my son, for those with knowledge and understanding, that would leave him emotionally and physically scarred for the rest of his life. I made those decisions without an understanding of what they meant for him or a conception of what it meant to have a "system-involved" child.  For the next three years, I walked this path alone in confusion and isolation. 

I sat through meetings where professionals talked about my son and I said nothing, because they presented themselves as the experts and seldom asked me anything. I sat in court rooms in front of a judge without an attorney or advocate, because I was told an attorney would only slow down my son getting the help he needed, and I believed this lie to be the truth. I sat outside the court house on the day my son was adjudicated as a delinquent and sent to a far-off facility because my legs would not carry me away from my baby, and still believed that I had done what was right. I sat by the phone for days, awaiting a call from the facility to inform me of where my son would be placed and when I would be able to visit.

I sat through 2-1/2 hour drives and then 5-1/2 hour drives to visit him. Sometimes, I was turned away upon arrival because he was in the infirmary or isolation.  I sat in the car on the long drives back home with tears running down my cheeks and my heart in misery, the images of my son’s battered body swirling through my mind, feeling sickened by my powerlessness and stupidity.
I sat through a visit with an attorney nearly 3 months into what I believed would be a 90-day stay for my son in an excellent program, only to be told by the attorney that my son would not be coming home anytime soon. 
I sat on the phone with one of the first teachers permitted inside the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth in Northeast Louisiana while she explained she had assessed my son and found him in isolation where he appeared to be on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Later, my son would be diagnosed with severe depression and post traumatic stress disorder. The prison where he was housed would be named “one of the worst in the nation” by The New York Times and find itself at the heart of a lawsuit by the Department of Justice.
A day would come when I no longer sat. I found my voice with the help of an organization founded by the families of the nearly 2000 children being warehoused in Louisiana’s brutal, filthy and neglectful facilities. I learned about the system, the court processes, and the way to achieve change and to bring reform to our long-broken juvenile justice system.  I also learned to be an advocate for my son and later became an outspoken advocate for hundreds of our children, working closely with their families to empower them to seek change and to protect their own children.
In my time with Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) and the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL), I helped to transform one of the worst juvenile justice systems in our country through one of the most comprehensive pieces of legislation on juvenile justice reform at that time. The bill, known as the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003, reduced the number of kids in secure care from nearly 2000 to fewer than 600. It provided for the creation of evidence-based community services, and along with many other sweeping reforms, closed the Tallulah facility to all children.
In this struggle and work, I was also transformed and underwent dramatic shifts in my philosophy and attitude about the juvenile and criminal justice systems, racism and disparities in the systems related to class and race. In time and under the tutelage of fine attorneys, amazing youth advocates and the finest community organizers in the country, I grew into an advocate for children and families, a teacher of families and allies, a leader of our community on juvenile and criminal justice issues and racial and ethnic disparities in systems ranging from the courts to the school system and became one of the few national speakers about these issues from the family perspective.
Through every struggle and every learning experience, one thought kept me pushing forward: “I will not sit by and see another parent struggle through this alone.” That thought still guides me in the work I do today and it was that thought that led to the creation of the National Parent Caucus.
Everywhere I speak, I encounter other families faced with the same lack of knowledge and understanding of the system that I faced. The Campaign for Youth Justice hired me as its first family organizer and devoted the time and energy necessary to understanding what families face when their child becomes “system-involved.”  The Campaign, being a conscientious and family-focused organization, recognized the need for a place for all families to unite for support, guidance, education and tools to make the changes needed to serve the best interest of all children, regardless of race or class.  Through devotion and commitment of the staff and the organization’s Executive Director, Liz Ryan, my long-held belief for providing an opportunity for families would open the door for systemic and sustainable change finally found the resources and support to bring it to fruition.
In the summer of 2009, we thought we would start off small and figure out what the needs of families actually were. Astoundingly, our first little-publicized call attracted parents from all over the country, including three who had lost sons to suicide in the adult jails. Today, the National Parent Caucus (NPC) reaches 216 people from 33 states.  The NPC is the first national group of families directly impacted by the juvenile and criminal justice systems to come together for the purpose of support and reform.
If you are the family, friend or ally of children involved in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems and believe there should be a better way, give us a call at 443-418-5201, or send us an email. (Work in the system? Here's a flyer with information to give to parents.)

juvenile-justice-reform_Grace-BauerGrace Bauer, is Field Organizer for the Campaign for Youth Justice. The mother of three children from Sulphur, Louisiana, her first exposure to the juvenile justice system came as the parent of a court-involved youth who, at age 14, was sent to a notorious juvenile correctional facility where he was abused and mistreated.
She formed the Lake Charles chapter of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), which became known as the nation’s leading parent organization campaigning for greater fairness, reduced incarceration, improved services and better conditions of confinement in juvenile justice.
Since joining the Campaign for Youth Justice in 2008, Grace has worked to unite the parents and allies of children in six targeted states to change laws and practices that result in children being prosecuted and confined as adults. Grace has also led the development of the National Parent Caucus, a national network of family members who have joined together to end the misguided practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating children as adults.
Photo at top: filippo minelli.

Updated: March 21 2018