Framework and Tool Help Juvenile Justice Agencies Treat Families as Partners
Families are central to a young person’s support network, sense of identity and healthy development. A framework and tool from the Annie E. Casey Foundation helps juvenile justice agencies develop and maintain collaborative relationships with family members and engage them as valuable partners in encouraging positive behavior change, personal growth and long-term success for youth in the justice system.
“Families are central to a young person’s support network, sense of identity and healthy development,” says Opal West, a senior associate with the Foundation. “For juvenile justice agencies, new partnerships with families can bring fresh perspectives to helping youth reach their full potential.”
Without a definitive road map, efforts to involve and support families as they navigate through the juvenile justice system look different from place to place. Building on efforts throughout the country, this framework combines research with concrete advice from the field on the mindsets, concepts and practices needed to better engage families. While it cannot account for all the unique features of every agency and every family, the framework distills broad issues of family engagement into four essential, digestible concepts:
- Creating a staff culture centered on families. Systems actively work to transform their cultures and shift staff perceptions through policies and training that focus on family needs and strengths — developing staff who are focused on serving youth and their families.
- Defining what makes a family. The legal definition of a family is changed to extend beyond biological parents and legal guardians.
- Supporting, guiding and advocating for families. Systems create policies to ensure families are offered training on the juvenile justice system, developing a network of support services and resources to address family needs throughout the process.
- Empowering family voice and retaining family connections. Systems engage families at the earliest point possible, create an environment where families are empowered to have a voice in all decision making and employ practices that allow youth to maintain contact with their families as easily and frequently as possible.
Six Jurisdictions Tested the Framework and Action Planner
Casey selected six jurisdictions in a competitive process to test the framework in 2021. They were Ashtabula, Ohio, with its community partner YMCA; Charlottesville, Virginia, with its community partner Community Attention; Douglas County, Nebraska; State of Maryland; Pima County, Arizona; and Pinal County, Arizona.
After assessing the experience of the six jurisdictions, West said: “It’s most effective when agencies carefully consider how to make the most of opportunities in their local context and adjust to meet their community’s needs.”
Pinal County Juvenile Court Services, for instance, chose to focus on supporting, guiding and advocating for families during the pilot phase. “We know that the children and families we serve live in communities with limited resources and face many barriers when it comes to services,” said Celena M. Angstead, Pinal County’s operations manager for youth probation. As they worked through the action planner, the probation staff realized that not only could they be “building the bridges [for families] to needed services,” but — if they first developed and maintained collaborative relationships with community partners — they could be “giving the families a warm hand-off, rather than just a list of local resources.” As a result of the shift in mindset and practice, “real relationships are being built, and this is a better way to go about doing our type of business,” Angstead said.
Improvements to the Action Planner
The jurisdictions in the pilot used an Excel-based template to help them develop plans and track their progress. Based on feedback from the participating sites, the tool has been updated to give clearer examples of what each concept might look like in practice at both system and case levels. As users move through the tool, the template guides them in articulating concrete action steps, creating realistic timelines and assigning roles and responsibilities.
Insights from the Pilot Jurisdictions
The pilot confirmed the usability and effectiveness of the framework and action planning tools. “The jurisdictions that made the most progress on family engagement followed up on feedback, continually revisited and revised their action plans and invested time in clarifying where they were going with their family engagement efforts and why,” West said.