The National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice

Parent Support

Reaching out to parents of youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system


Youth with disabilities are over-represented in the juvenile justice system. Common disabilities in this population include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities (LD), developmental disabilities (DD), depression, conduct disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety.

Research demonstrates that a high proportion of youth in the corrections system have never been identified as having a disability or have been misidentified (EDJJ, 1999). Consequently, many children and their families have not had the necessary assessments, or the academic, social, or psychological interventions that could have resulted in positive family interaction and change. In addition, advocates report two significant trends among youth that receive special education services:

  1. Schools are increasingly referring youth with disabilities to the juvenile justice system. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has provisions related to youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system.

  2. There is a lack of appropriate special education services for youth in correction settings.

Parent involvement

The role of families in the development of delinquent and criminal behavior is complex. Family-related risk factors are significant. They include experiencing or witnessing violence, having a family member in the criminal justice system, a family history of mental illness, and living in poverty. We know that family-based prevention and early intervention strategies can be successful in lessening the risk factors and improving family life. If we re-frame the issues, we can understand that it is not families that have failed, but systems that have failed families.

What do parents want?

Respect and dignity Parents experience shame and blame in the juvenile justice system. Too often they are seen as hostile, resistant, and the "source of the problem," when, in fact, they are worried and overwhelmed.

Acknowledgment that they know their child
Parents have a great deal of information to contribute about their child. When the system ignores this information, it creates mistrust and fear in parents and makes it more difficult for them to cooperate in program decisions.

Professionals who listen and do not judge
Often parents of children with emotional disorders are accustomed to hearing negative information about their child. They may already feel guilty that their child's behavior has been so difficult.

Professionals who are culturally sensitive and programs that are culturally competent
The juvenile justice system involves a disproportionately high percentage of children of color. There is a need for more staff training in culturally sensitive approaches to working with families and greater efforts to hire more professionals from diverse cultures.

Family-centered prevention and intervention strategies
Parents want to be involved in making decisions about their child. There is often a gulf between what a professional believes the child needs and what the parents believe will be effective. This can cause distrust and frustration.

Parents understand that their children should be accountable for their behaviors. Their wish is that the systems that serve them also be held accountable. Parents report that youth are often sent to programs that promise specific kinds of disability-centered approaches but in actuality, do not provide them. They report that youth often return from correction settings more defiant and more skilled in antisocial behaviors.

Information about their rights and those of their children
Court procedures can be confusing and frightening. Parents need information about procedures and due process rights in language that they can understand, so they can advocate on behalf of their child.

Information about their child's disability
Parents of children involved in delinquent behaviors are often uninformed about the behavioral characteristics that are disability-driven. They may not know how to effectively parent children with aggressive, challenging behaviors. They need education about the disability, positive parenting styles, and information on how to obtain help when the child's behavior is not appropriate.


Parents may feel anxious and suspicious of systems that they believe have been judgmental, inconsistent, and unhelpful to their child and to themselves. They may be defensive because their child?s difficulties in school and subsequent involvement in the justice system are seen as reflections of their own inadequacies as parents.

Parents are described as not caring enough to attend Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings or court appearances. Yet families often report they are not informed in a timely way about IEP meetings and often cannot understand the court documents. Parents cannot always leave work to be available for meetings. They may not have transportation or a telephone. Such challenges face many families whose children are involved in delinquent or criminal behavior.

Promoting family involvement with at-risk and adjudicated youth

Families have the potential to be the greatest source of positive change and support for youth in the juvenile justice system. For families to become active partners in addressing serious behavioral issues, they must be valued as active partners in identifying needs and developing successful treatment plans. There are a number of ways to achieve family participation:

• Regard the family as a promising part of intervention. Develop supports for the family that can help them to become more skilled. Parents often know what they need.

• Encourage families to participate in programs that will educate them about their child's disabilities. This way, they can develop more realistic expectations of what the child can and cannot do and learn more effective parenting and advocacy skills.

• Help parents develop a consistently structured, appropriate parenting style that addresses needs resulting from the child?s disability.

• Provide information that helps parents understand due process rights, obtain services, and advocate for their child?s rights. IDEA is predicated on family involvement in special education planning, whether the child is at home or in an out-of-home placement.

• Provide parents with information about programs that address special education, mental health, and social skills needs, so they understand the behavioral and academic expectations for their child and are motivated to follow their child's progress.

• Provide new information and technology such as telephone conferencing, transportation assistance, and other supports to help parents be more involved in their child's education programs in the corrections setting.

• Help parents to work collaboratively with service providers, educators, and other professionals who may be involved in planning for the child.

• Inform parents about the judicial process in simple language. Include information about the courts, terminology, timelines, and the legal rights of parents and their children.

• Have available a list of referral agencies and disability groups in the state.

Prevention, intervention, and transition

Prevention and early intervention programs reduce the potential for failure, frustration, and delinquency. Programs directed to the youth?s needs in his or her family, school, and social setting appear to have the greatest success in reducing delinquency. Programs that address known risk factors can mitigate their potential impact.

Early intervention programs, intensive family outreach and monitoring programs, multi-systemic therapy, restorative justice, and similar approaches show promise in addressing needs in a holistic and collaborative way.

Planning for transition back into the community should begin the moment a child enters a correctional program. Planning should include the family and a constellation of services to assist the family when the youth returns home.

To be successful, supports and services, in addition to monitoring, must be available so the child can feel confident and competent in changing problem behaviors. Family support must be one of those services.

PACER's role in parent training and education

PACER Center is a Parent Training and Information Center (PTI) serving families of children and young adults with all disabilities. PACER staff train and inform parents and professionals about a wide range of disability-related issues in the justice system, including disability rights, characteristics of disabilities, family-friendly interventions, and available community services.

PACER is the national coordinating office for the Technical Assistance Alliance for Parent Centers and provides technical assistance to 100 parent centers across the country. Through PACER?s Alliance project and others, PACER will develop and provide ongoing training on issues identified by the National Center on Education, Disabilities, and Juvenile Justice (EDJJ) to parent center staff at national meetings. Wherever possible, EDJJ staff will be involved in training. In addition,

PACER will provide training to professionals identified through EDJJ about working with families of youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system. PACER will develop a Juvenile Justice Institute and will be involved in developing resources on topics of interest to parents in language that is clear and easy to understand. These include best practices, bulletins, and other resources. Information about these resources will be available through the EDJJ Web site, and through PACER's Web site, bulletins, and newsletter. PACER will translate resources into other languages as required.


EDJJ: National Center on Education, Disability, and Juvenile Justice. (August, 1999). Proposal submitted to U. S. Department of Education, CFDA 84 324J. College Park, MD: University of Maryland.

Heggenler, Scott, et al. "Multisystemic Therapy for Serious Juvenile Offenders and Their Families." In Going Straight: Effective Delinquency Prevention and Offender Rehabilitation, edited by Robert R. Ross et al., 111-33. Ottawa, Canada: Air Training and Publications, 1995.

Leone, Peter E. Understanding Troubled and Troubling Youth. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1990.

Nelson, C. Michael, et al., eds. Comprehensive and Collaborative Systems that Work for Troubled Youth: A National Agenda. Richmond, KY: National Juvenile Detention Association, 1996.

Spekman, Nancy, et al. "An Exploration of Risk and Resilience in the Lives of Children with Learning Disabilities," Learning Disabilities: Research and Practice 3, no. 1 (1993): 11-18.

PACER Center, Inc.
8161 Normandale Blvd
Minneapolis MN 55437-1044
Tel: (612) 827-2966 Fax: (612) 827-3065
TTY: (612) 827-7770 Toll-free: 1-800-53-PACER
E-mail: Web site:

Please email EDJJ with any questions and/or comments
University of Maryland, 1224 Benjamin Building College Park, MD 20742
Phone (301) 405-6462 Fax (301) 314-5757

For information about the website or to be linked to EDJJ,
email the webmaster.