Six Tips for Engaging Families in Juvenile Justice System Reform and Advocacy

cartoon - 4 people fitting puzzle pieces Families can be one of the most powerful levers for changing how youth in the juvenile justice system access alcohol and drug treatment -- and improving its quality. But involving family members in reform work is difficult.
Fortunately, it's a skill that can be learned. To help you along, we're reprinting below a newsletter column written by Grace Bauer, Community Organizer for the Campaign for Youth Justice. --Ed.

Strategies for Engaging Families in
Advocacy and System Reform Efforts
by Grace Bauer

1. Invite parents, other family and community members to the table. This may seem obvious, but it is surprising how often these groups are simply not invited. Admittedly, it is tough to hear the anger and hurt of families. When they tell their stories, especially about what their experience with the system has been, it's not a personal attack on anyone, and you shouldn't take it as one. The only thing that's personal, in fact, is the story they are being brave enough to share with you - and that is very personal to them. Instead of getting defensive, use the opportunity to understand the experiences of the family.
2. Recognize multiple forms of meaningful engagement. Some families will be most interested in the work because their child is involved in the system and they will come with a great deal of raw personal experience and pain. Some may be interested regardless of their child's status. Still others may be interested for either of these reasons but have no time or ability for whatever reason to come to a meeting. Wherever they are, physically or emotionally, there can be meaningful engagement between parents and other system reformers if everyone understands that input and engagement can happen in many different ways, not just at professional meetings. Consider sending newsletters and ask for submissions from folks who can't or don't want to come to meetings. Make check- in calls to say hello. A phone call from a caring family advocate offering assistance in meeting a need or listening to a tired mother would make more sense and gain greater results. The advocate can then get meaningful input by asking questions about how a specific program is meeting the needs of the child and family or if the process for reporting a complaint is worth the effort.
3. Level the playing field. Many advocates feel that they sit in on an awful lot of meetings, often underpaid. Maybe you're one of them. For most families, system reform is not the only priority and it certainly doesn't pay the bills. If your organization wants family involvement and honestly believes parents and families are as important as the other stakeholders, you must level the playing field whether through stipends or at least funds to cover transportation, lost time at work, childcare costs, food and other financial hardships. Think about the time of day you hold your stakeholder meetings and where you hold these meetings. Do the times work for the families you want involved or just the professionals? Are they held near the neighborhoods of the families or uptown near your offices? Consider offering stipends to the parents/families involved in your work as a meaningful way to keep them active and engaged.
4. Make the table more parent/community friendly. We all use different language in our daily lives and professions. The same is true of our organizations, we all come from different places and have different levels of understanding. Consider: creating guidelines to bridge the differences and possibly getting all of the stakeholders to agree early on a set of guidelines can help facilitate this process.
5. Set clear expectations. What do you want from families and community members? When you hear their truths are you going to act to remedy certain obstacles faced by families? Will they truly be equal partners and decision makers? Advocacy organizations must be willing to share their vision of what a reformed system looks like and where families and parents fit into it. If this vision doesn't meet the needs of families, are you willing to consider what it will take to do so? Consider that if you spent several hours a week or month in a meeting, sharing your ideas and thoughts on any given subject and those views were never given credence, you probably would not continue showing up at those meetings for very long. Given the time constraints we all face in our busy lives, it is not very likely that we would waste our precious time filing complaints that make no difference.
6. Be an apprentice to first-hand experience. No one knows what it is like to struggle with a child in the system better than another parent. Advocacy groups may not be the best leaders for parents. Many parents come to the system with distrust of the system already firmly ingrained in their mind. For many communities this distrust is well founded. Don't expect families or community members to automatically put trust in a system that has failed them before. Don't patronize families; they know when they are being patronized. Don't make assumptions about these families; you may know very little about their day-to-day lives and their struggles. You may know what their household income is, but that doesn't tell you about their work ethic. You may know what community they live in, but you may not know why they live there, if by choice or by circumstance. Never underestimate their strengths, capacity or abilities. Support the creation of family networks or fund family centered organizations to bridge some of these gaps. Consider hiring a parent advocate as part of your team to support the parents who are new to your organization.
Don't waste the opportunities that you now have in reforming your juvenile justice system. You must make a choice and be committed to having families, youth and community involved. It takes strategic thinking, planning and hard work, but in empowering families to be a part of system reform you are ensuring a long lasting legacy of true reform in your jurisdictions.
Got any ideas or thoughts about involving families in improving juvenile justice or teen alcohol and drug treatment? Leave a comment, and let us know what's on your mind!
UPDATE: You can find more tips on engaging families in the juvenile justice system here. 

Updated: March 21 2018