Citizens for Juvenile Justice
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CfJJ's 2014 ConferenceEngaging Families in the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice System

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


More than 50 attendees, including families of youth in the juvenile justice system, Department of Youth Services and Probation staff, attorneys, community-based service providers, and other advocates attended CfJJ's conference, "Engaging Families in the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice System," on September 10, 2014.

The afternoon featured keynote speaker, Grace Bauer, Executive Director and co-founder of Justice for Families, who compellingly spoke about how her son’s harrowing experience in the Louisiana juvenile justice system led her to join with other families to shut down the facility where he was incarcerated and achieve other important system reform. “Nobody thought we would win,” she said. “We were up against serious money and serious influence…but because the families were dogged and persistent and refused to back down, we won.”

This was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Chris Jones, Executive Director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, looking at a range of perspectives on why family engagement is a crucial component of an effective juvenile justice system and how system players can best engage families. Ryan Shanahan, Director of Research for the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Youth Justice and Family Justice Program, highlighted social science research demonstrating the importance of family engagement. For example, not only does a family-focused approach reduce the chances that a child will return to the system, it actually makes it less likely that his siblings will enter it in the first place. She discussed how players within all stages of the system can fulfill their responsibility to engage families through a process of assessment, engagement, and empowerment.

Kathy Pilarski, the mother of a child who was involved in the system, then shared about her experience navigating the system. She talked about the moment when, as she described, “we began our sentence,” because even though her son was the one who was incarcerated, she and her family were profoundly impacted by the void left in his absence. She also emphasized how much she appreciated her son’s DYS case worker, who worked hard to include her by, among other things, driving her to many meetings that she would have been otherwise unable to attend.

Yvonne Sparling, Director of Clinical Services for the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, provided an overview of the range of efforts that DYS is making to support and encourage family engagement. This includes orientation groups and brochures to help families understand the system, family engagement specialists in all regions, providing fun activities during visits so that families and kids can interact in a more comfortable and natural way, and a family survey to assess these and other programs.

Finally, Meri Viano, the Director of Community Outreach and Partnership of Parent/Professional Advocacy League (PPAL), talked about how PPAL is working to support families as they navigate state systems, including the juvenile justice system. She discussed PPAL’s efforts to educate and collaborate with families and youth as well as PPAL’s work to advocate for change at both the local and state level.

Participants then broke into smaller groups to begin identifying priorities for improving family engagement and outlining steps towards solutions. Some of the top priorities included: more consistent communication between families and system players; a parent advocate in each juvenile court; training for families so that they are empowered advocates; training for law enforcement, judges, and other players on topics such as trauma and engaging families; attorneys available 24-7 so that families have someone to consult immediately after their child is arrested; and peer mentors to support both youth and families. Participants identified broader goals, such as eliminating zero tolerance policies, as high priorities as well.

CfJJ thanks all of the speakers and participants for generating a wealth of valuable ideas for ensuring that families are engaged throughout the juvenile justice system.

Conference Materials:

Speaker Bios
Breakout Group Agenda
DYS Powerpoint
PPAL Powerpoint
DYS Family Engagement Handout
DYS Detention Family Brochure
DYS Commitment Family Brochure
Justice for Families Report Recommendations

Useful Websites:
Justice for Families
Parent/Professional Advocacy League
Vera Institute Family Justice Program
Youth Advocacy Division

Other Resources:
An Advocate’s Guide to Meaningful Family Partnerships: Tips from the Field, National Juvenile Justice Network
Facility Toolkit for Engaging Families in Their Child’s Education at a Juvenile Justice Facility, The National Evaluation and Technical Assistance Center for the Education of Children and Youth Who Are Neglected, Delinquent, or At Risk
Families Unlocking Futures: Solutions to the Crisis in Juvenile Justice
Family Comes First: A Workbook to Transform the Justice System by Partnering With Families, Campaign for Youth Justice
The Impact of Family Visitation on Incarcerated Youth's Behavior and School Performance: Findings from the Families as Partners Project, Vera Institute of Justice
Juvenile Defense Attorneys and Family Engagement: Same Team, Different Roles, National Juvenile Defender Center
The Role of Family Engagement in Creating Trauma-Informed Juvenile Justice Systems, The National Child Traumatic Stress Center
Safety, Fairness, Stability: Repositioning Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare to Engage Families and Communities, Center for Juvenile Justice Reform
Setting an Agenda for Family-Focused Justice Reform, Vera Institute of Justice