OJJDP Holds Family Engagement Listening Sessions

A photo of father and son
During the spring and summer of 2011, OJJDP hosted a series of Family Engagement Listening Sessions to provide OJJDP, state juvenile justice agencies, and other stakeholders with a greater understanding of what families face when their child becomes involved in the juvenile or criminal justice system. OJJDP leadership and staff participated in the sessions. The four listening sessions were held in New Orleans, LA, on March 30; in Washington, DC, on April 27 and June 15; and in Santa Fe, NM, on July 26.

Family members of current and previously incarcerated youth shared their firsthand experiences, challenges, and recommendations. The discussions focused on four broad topic areas: the expectations and the reality of families' first encounters with the juvenile justice system, how the needs of youth were (or were not) met during the child's period of confinement, how the family was treated and served (or not) while their son or daughter was incarcerated, and services received (or not) after the youth was released.

Families spoke of often frustrating circumstances leading up to their child's involvement with the juvenile justice system as they mostly unsuccessfully tried to address mounting behavior challenges and to obtain needed mental health services and effective educational responses to their child's learning or other school-related needs. Many families had high hopes that the encounter with the juvenile justice system would be the beginning of helpful services for their youngster and for the family. Very few families found this to be the case once their child was incarcerated.

Instead, families faced a plethora of difficult, stressful, and, in some cases, fatal challenges. Most spoke of having little or no information about their rights, their child's rights, or the legal process at the beginning of or throughout the case. Several noted the lack of attention to their child's medical, mental health, and educational needs. Few families received support or services for themselves while their child was incarcerated, and visiting requirements were often onerous and difficult to meet. More than one family experienced the suicide of their child while in the system, while another family's son died shortly after release.

Some families spoke of supportive programs their child participated in while in a juvenile justice detention facility, including learning how to manage emotions and anger, obtaining a high school diploma, or receiving college credits.

A forthcoming report will include a compilation of the families' experiences and policy recommendations that will help OJJDP develop strategies to assist state juvenile justice systems in increasing positive experiences and outcomes for youth and families. In addition, families are being invited to participate in OJJDP's upcoming National Conference, "Children's Justice & Safety: Unite, Build, Lead," at the Gaylord National Hotel & Convention Center in National Harbor, MD, on October 12–14, 2011.