Reaching out to parents of youth with
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
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.
The role of families in the development of delinquent and criminal
behavior is complex.
Family-related risk factors are significant. They include experiencing or
violence, having a family member in the criminal justice system, a family
mental illness, and living in poverty. We know that family-based
prevention and early
intervention strategies can be successful in lessening the risk factors
family life. If we re-frame the issues, we can understand that it is not
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
are seen as hostile, resistant, and the "source of the problem," when, in
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
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
negative information about their child. They may already feel guilty that
child's behavior has been so difficult.
Professionals who are culturally sensitive and programs that
The juvenile justice system involves a disproportionately high percentage
children of color. There is a need for more staff training in culturally
approaches to working with families and greater efforts to hire more
from diverse cultures.
Family-centered prevention and intervention
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
believe will be effective. This can cause distrust and frustration.
Parents understand that their children should be accountable for their
Their wish is that the systems that serve them also be held
report that youth are often sent to programs that promise specific kinds
disability-centered approaches but in actuality, do not provide them. They
that youth often return from correction settings more defiant and more
Information about their rights and those of their
Court procedures can be confusing and frightening. Parents need
procedures and due process rights in language that they can understand, so
can advocate on behalf of their child.
Information about their child's disability
Parents of children involved in delinquent behaviors are often uninformed
behavioral characteristics that are disability-driven. They may not know
effectively parent children with aggressive, challenging behaviors. They
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
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 are described as not caring enough to attend Individualized
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
documents. Parents cannot always leave work to be available for
meetings. They may
not have transportation or a telephone. Such challenges face many families
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
and support for
youth in the juvenile justice system. For families to become active
addressing serious behavioral issues, they must be valued as active
identifying needs and developing successful treatment plans. There are a
ways to achieve family participation:
Regard the family as a promising part of intervention. Develop
family that can help them to become more skilled. Parents often know what
Encourage families to participate in programs that will educate
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
Help parents develop a consistently structured, appropriate
addresses needs resulting from the child?s disability.
Provide information that helps parents understand due process
services, and advocate for their child?s rights. IDEA is predicated on
involvement in special education planning, whether the child is at home or
Provide parents with information about programs that address
mental health, and social skills needs, so they understand the behavioral
academic expectations for their child and are motivated to follow their
Provide new information and technology such as telephone
transportation assistance, and other supports to help parents be more
their child's education programs in the corrections setting.
Help parents to work collaboratively with service providers,
professionals who may be involved in planning for the child.
Inform parents about the judicial process in simple
about the courts, terminology, timelines, and the legal rights of parents
Have available a list of referral agencies and disability groups
Prevention, intervention, and transition
Prevention and early intervention programs reduce the potential for
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
delinquency. Programs that address known risk factors can mitigate their
Early intervention programs, intensive family outreach and monitoring
multi-systemic therapy, restorative justice, and similar approaches show
addressing needs in a holistic and collaborative way.
Planning for transition back into the community should begin the moment
enters a correctional program. Planning should include the family and a
of services to assist the family when the youth returns home.
To be successful, supports and services, in addition to monitoring,
be available so
the child can feel confident and competent in changing problem
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
children and young adults with all disabilities. PACER staff train and
and professionals about a wide range of disability-related issues in the
including disability rights, characteristics of disabilities,
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
country. Through PACER?s Alliance project and others, PACER will develop
provide ongoing training on issues identified by the National Center on
Disabilities, and Juvenile Justice (EDJJ) to parent center staff at
Wherever possible, EDJJ staff will be involved in training. In addition,
provide training to professionals identified through EDJJ about working
of youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system.
PACER will develop a Juvenile Justice Institute and will be involved in
resources on topics of interest to parents in language that is clear and
understand. These include best practices, bulletins, and other
about these resources will be available through the EDJJ Web site, and
PACER's Web site, bulletins, and newsletter. PACER will translate
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
Their Families." In Going Straight: Effective Delinquency Prevention
Rehabilitation, edited by Robert R. Ross et al., 111-33. Ottawa,
Training and Publications, 1995.
Leone, Peter E. Understanding Troubled and Troubling Youth.
Sage Publications, 1990.
Nelson, C. Michael, et al., eds. Comprehensive and Collaborative
that Work for
Troubled Youth: A National Agenda. Richmond, KY: National Juvenile
Spekman, Nancy, et al. "An Exploration of Risk and Resilience in the
with Learning Disabilities," Learning Disabilities: Research and
3, no. 1
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