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114 AUGUST 2008

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Count us in! A family and professional collaboration

Jennifer Mankey, Carolyn Nava, and Marilyn Webb

Professionals from Denver’s juvenile justice system team up with family advocates and families themselves, and the results of their collaboration offer promising possibilities for systems in other localities.

Shame and blame. That’s what we called the typical mode of treatment families in the juvenile justice system were being offered in 1995, the year our networking project began. Families whose adolescent children for one reason or another got enmeshed in the system were routinely pathologized-professionals saw such families as the reason the kids were there. They tended to view these parents not in terms of strengths they might offer in helping their children, but as people unable to control their children, unable or unwilling to keep either their children or their communities safe. Families were seen as the problem, never as part of the solution.

For families in Denver, however, all this began to change in 1995, when the Colorado Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division contracted with the Denver Juvenile Court and Probation Department to develop a network that would integrate the efforts of the juvenile justice agencies and public and private agencies in the areas of education, substance abuse treatment, and various services (vocational/employment, prosocial, mental health, family, and social and human) to do the following:

This effort became known as the Denver Juvenile Justice Integrated Treatment Network, which brought together the three authors of this article, Jennifer Mankey and Marilyn Webb of the Network, and Carolyn Nava of the Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health, Colorado Chapter, which had been brought on board to help the juvenile justice system connect more effectively with the families that were its concern.

The result was an ongoing collaboration between juvenile justice professionals, family advocates, and eventually the families themselves, that profoundly changed the ways all three groups regarded each other.

A bumpy start
The collaboration was not easy. Juvenile justice professionals had specific training in dealing with the youths and families they encountered in their work, and specific ways of perceiving these families. They were understandably accustomed to viewing youths in terms of their offenses and their problems – in terms, that is, of what brought them into contact with the juvenile justice system. The family advocates represented by the Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health, on the other hand, tended to view youths from the standpoint of mental health, and liked to look past the immediate problem in an effort to find strengths within the families that had come in contact with the system. The juvenile justice system had asked the Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health to help them change their approach, but change was not instantaneous.

There was, for example, the matter of language. Juvenile justice professionals at first resisted the efforts of family advocates to get them to use “person-first” language. The idea was to think of people – in this case the adolescents being dealt with – in terms that did not reduce them to mere disabilities or disorders or offenses. Was a child to be seen as merely his or her crime or symptom – as a felon, for example, or as a depressive – or could he or she be seen as a person first? In one meeting between the two groups, juvenile justice professionals were asked to find an alternative to the term “juvenile delinquent.” After seven tries, they came up with the somewhat more satisfactory characterization “a youngster who has had an altercation with the law,” which did at least remove the emphasis from the problem (criminal behavior) and place it on the person (a youngster).

Not everyone was instantly satisfied or pleased by the collaboration. The Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health, after all, was a group devoted to family advocacy and made up of family members, people whose children had at one time been or were still involved in the very issues that the Network was trying to address. At one meeting, fed up with the pressure from this group, a young woman in the juvenile justice group asked, “Is it necessary for families to be the focus of everything we talk about?”

But it was. The focus on families turned out to be the key ingredient in the success of the program. It was fine for justice professionals and advocacy professionals to get together and talk these issues out, but what really changed the equation for everyone involved was getting actual families, families entangled in the juvenile justice system, to the table.

The family task force
When the Network perceived that, despite all the collaborative committee efforts – specific subcommittees for mental health, prosocial activities, education, alcohol and drugs, juvenile justice, human services, and high-risk youth – the family perspective was not represented at all, a Network family task force was convened.

The Family Task Force, started late in 1996, comprised Network member agencies that served families who had youth in the juvenile justice, mental health, or AOD systems. It was obvious at the start that there were very few family representatives present, so it was decided that each agency would bring at least one parent to the meetings.

We soon had our first meeting composed of parents and agency representatives. Not every agency brought parents, but some brought several, so we usually had a good turnout of concerned family members. The meetings were held once a month at a church in the community Dinner was provided by the Network, and child care was available through the Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health. This setup was crucial for several reasons. Not only did this allow families to come straight from work, but it gave all the children something constructive to do, since we employed the older children – the very reason the parents were there in the first place – as babysitters for the younger ones. Part of the aim of family advocacy is an increased focus on youths, and here they were given responsibilities and also eventually a leadership class, which was added to the activities available to them. Given such attention, these youths began to see themselves differently. One student in such a class asked us “What makes me a leader?” We pointed out that, among other things, he was an expert on being what he was, in this case an African American youngster with mental illness, and that that was what we needed right then, someone like him to lead us to an understanding of his situation. Beyond that, of course, we hoped he would learn from his own experience, and go on to teach others.

Soon we began to offer training, provided by panels of systems administrators, to the families. This task force set a precedent for collaboration between families and agency representatives to develop some solutions to the concerns of parents. The families were not judged and had an equal place at the table. Youths attended from time to time and had an opportunity to voice their opinions as well. The families also provided training in reciprocity to the systems and agency personnel. Everyone was in a position to learn from everyone else.

Families turned out to have many concerns that were not being addressed within the juvenile justice system. They were particularly worried about incarceration of their children, how their children were treated while incarcerated, and the possibility that their children's symptoms might worsen under those conditions. Among other areas of concern voiced by parents were the following:

Interaction between the three groups – the juvenile justice group, the family advocacy group, and the families themselves – shaped the project in ways it could not have been shaped if it had been managed by only one of the groups. Representation turned out to be a key issue. The task force hosted panels of administrators and management from various points in the juvenile justice system. Task force members challenged the advocacy community as well as the public system and services communities. Youth of color, they pointed out, were overrepresented in the juvenile justice system and underrepresented in the mental health system, with which the family advocates were affiliated. The Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health, perhaps because of its origin among concerned, educated, middle class parents of youths with mental health challenges, tended to have family advocates who were educated, middle-class, and white. This tendency caused some discomfort among some of the families whose interests were supposed to be served.

In response to this discomfort, the Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health created a multicultural technical assistance field team whose advocate members reflected all children across multiple systems, including those overrepresented in the juvenile justice system. With this team, families began to explore racial and cultural issues and consider systemic change from multiple and diverse perspectives.

Once the team came together, we found that the work being done became much richer – the different styles of new team members allowed our program to reach many more families, families that may not have felt comfortable dealing with advocates whose life experiences seemed to be too far from their own. People were saying, basically, “I want an advocate who looks like me:” A whole new level of trust was created by providing them with just that.

There was already this great strength of family advocacy that the advocates came from among parents with the same kinds of problems as the parents they dealt with – that these parents had also had kids in need of special help at home. But with the newly diverse group of advocates we could go beyond this, to a similarity based not just on shared problems but, if necessary, on shared cultural background. The trust issue required that staff reflect the families of the children they served. Without input from the juvenile justice group, the family advocates might not have thought to make this change, and without input from the parents in the multicultural team, the Network as a whole might not have thought to shape the advocate pool to reflect the cultural diversity of the families being served. It was a symbiotic development, each part dependent on each other part for growth and change, and this is what we think set our experience apart. It was not something that could be left to chance. If we were preaching change to systems that dealt with youth, then we ourselves had to show how change is made. As Mahatma Ghandi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Learning from families
From this involvement with families we learned important lessons about how to frame some of our issues. For example, some of the families most disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system, those with the greatest life stressors – poverty, unemployment, health and mental health issues for the parents; learning disabilities and developmental delays for the children – had finally come to the table and taught us that we couldn’t make blanket assumptions about their reasons for doing or not doing things. Sometimes, it was true, these parents simply did not know about the avenues open to them in protecting their children – did not know, for example, that by getting their children into mental health programs, they could often avoid having the children taken out of the home (such information, and the insurance to cover such programs, is often available only to those in more comfortable circumstances, which is why it is important for us to network so we can reach all families). But sometimes it turned out that families in certain cultures would rather have their children labeled juvenile delinquents than have them identified as being in need of mental health services. These parents were intentionally avoiding the help that was available to them, because of issues of stigmatization.

It also turned out that the youths themselves sometimes preferred to be thought of as troublemakers than as in need of such services. Often, for example, they would tell us they had been expelled from school, and only when we dug for information would it come out that they had been identified as having mental illness. The connection to our work in changing the system is this: the reluctance of these families to come forward made them look uninterested in helping their children, and children's reluctance to come forward made them look uninterested in being helped. It was part of a misunderstanding between the system and the families involved in it. And only by talking to the families themselves, families drawn in through our efforts to reshape the system to include them, could we learn how to reach them better – and how sometimes we were not reaching them at all.

Making it work
The most exciting thing about our collaborative work is its potential to stop the cycle of criminalization and, in the best possible outcome, turn it around. The cycle of criminalization is the trap youths get into when they are viewed in terms of their misdeeds or their disabilities – when they are labeled, for example, as juvenile delinquents, and come to inhabit this definition. Whole families get caught in this cycle, losing their children to the juvenile justice system or the child-welfare system. They may be labeled dysfunctional and given up for lost. But family advocacy can change this.

Over the several years of our collaborative work, numerous family members have transformed their personal experiences into effective strategies for engaging professional partners in a relationship. The examples of actual family participants are the examples of how we want the collaboration to work. All the parents who came in to our meetings were showing us something positive, although previously they had been labeled as deficient parents. In the shame-and-blame culture that prevailed in juvenile justice, they were considered be the source of their children's problems. But what we saw was something different: we saw, or chose to see, their strengths. All those parents who brought their children to those meetings – they were hardly giving up on those children. They were instead showing great stamina in finding their way to us, in finding ways to get to our meetings despite their long working hours, their low wages, their other children. They had managed to hold onto these kids this long, to hold their families together; they stood beside these children before judges more than once. They did not reject these children or kick them out of the house. Instead, they kept trying to find support no matter how many times they were rebuffed by the system. Surely this showed perseverance and effort, not to mention interest in their children's welfare. And with the young people, too, the effective approach is to emphasize their strengths. Faced with a youth who makes graffiti, why not concentrate on the artistic ability rather than on the crime?

Sometimes solutions were surprisingly simple. We all knew, for example, that these young people often got in trouble with the law and were often dangerously misunderstood by officers. So we brought police to the Family Task Force meetings. The police were able to explain to these young people how to deal safely with potentially dangerous situations. For example, they advised the youths to carry little cards in their pockets, cards that explained their disabilities or other problems. They also told the young people how to withdraw these cards from their pockets safely, how to warn the officers that they were going to reach for the card, how to speak politely, how to get the police on their side. This was practical instruction that could change their futures; this was strategy for surviving if they got into trouble. These young people were learning how to handle their problems and make themselves understood.

Collaboration worked for us, and it can work for you, too. Of course the work of this partnership is never done. We have a long way to go to achieve complete integration of family and youth voices into all services and systems that cater to them. We are now, however, better able to understand each other’s challenges and to meet our own.

Challenges to family-run organizations are many. The leadership of such organizations changes frequently. Family-run organizations don’t always have staff-management skills, nor do they always have suitable infrastructure to support the services they wish to offer. Collaboration with a professional organization can eliminate these problems.

Challenges to professionals and systems are also many. Systems (the court process, child protective services) are adversarial by design, and are therefore often viewed negatively by the families they serve. There is little concession to family circumstances – for example, families are expected to be in court even in the face of difficulties (transportation problems, sick children, babysitter trouble). And of course the shame-and-blame ethic alienates families from these organizations. All of this, as we have shown, can be changed through collaboration.

Making the system more equitable and effective
What worked for our group was to include families in the process and emphasize their strengths. When the families came up with their list of concerns, in those early meetings, we were able to turn the list over to the juvenile justice system. One side of the effort fed directly into the other side. Over time whatever we learned, whatever we developed in the way of values and vision and goals and mission, went back into the system itself and changed the way system professionals worked with families.

Several results of this collaboration are already in place. We now have, for example, a universal consent form as part of our system. This form allows families to specify which pieces of information can be disseminated about them. If they do not want some information to be sent to a child's school, for example, they can ask that it be withheld.

The juvenile justice system now practices strength-based assessment of families. They focus not just on pathology, but also on family strengths and existing supports. The system now offers individualized support for families, and families have much more say in how they are treated. They can now choose to bring other family members to meetings with system representatives, and can also choose an advocate to have at meetings with them.

Support groups are now available to families. In group meetings they can talk about what they think needs to be changed in the system -they have a forum, and advocates who can transmit their opinions to those in power. Now they can have an effect. They can, if necessary, mobilize their discontent.

Not all families have found the solutions they were looking for. But still, they can begin to see that change is a possibility. And this was something they had never hoped for in the past.

This feature: Mankey, J., Nava, C. and Webb, M. (2001). Count us in! A family and professional collaboration. Reaching Today's Youth, 5 , 3. pp.22-26.

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