Family Voice in Juvenile Justice

Facebook Twitter More...

By Lisa Lambert, Executive Director, Parent/Professional Advocacy League  
Meri Viano, Director of Community Outreach and Partnership, Parent/Professional Advocacy League

Last month, a mother called our office. Her 15-year-old son had been arrested, had a court date, and she needed some help. After she finished telling her story she said, “I just want to be seen as part of the solution, not just part of the problem.” In Massachusetts, she might get her chance.

Two years ago, the state juvenile justice agency partnered with the Parent/Professional Advocacy League (PPAL) to create the Department of Youth Services (DYS) Family Voice Project. PPAL is a family-run organization that helps others understand and navigate children’s services. Nearly all the staff are raising (or have raised) children with behavioral health needs and have an “instant” connection with other parents. PPAL’s years of experience showed that engagement with families who feel disappointed, frustrated, and alienated by their interactions with schools, professionals, and multiple systems is most effectively accomplished by a family organization.

Massachusetts had been involved in the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) for a number of years. JDAI works to find alternatives to secure detention and to strengthen partnerships. One focus of JDAI is to shift the paradigm in regards to families. Many parents whose children go before the court face barriers which include low income, transportation problems, difficulty getting time off work, and other family obligations. They are often seen as having given up or as being part of the problem. In order for families to be viewed differently, this perspective had to change.

The DYS Family Voice Project, while small in scope, has very big goals. Several part-time positions called Family Support Specialists are filled by parents who had personal experience and knowledge of the juvenile justice system. The specialists provide information and teach skills to families to promote diversion. They provide trainings in their communities and participate in local JDAI committees. It is an avenue to provide family voice from the ground up to strategy meetings. Most importantly, they are shifting the culture, often one person at a time, to seeing families in a strength-based way. Their message is clear: families are the experts on their families and children do better when their families are involved.

Finding the “right” Family Support Specialists is crucial. It requires someone who is a veteran parent who brings passion and diversity to their work. Sometimes the going is tough. Personal relationships take time and it can be hard to change minds. At one meeting, one person remarked that he had never sat at a table with a parent as a partner before. Other professionals have never experienced a behavioral health, school, or other crisis with their child and have a limited understanding of how this impacts parents and other siblings. Learning the parent perspective can come slowly. Parents, however, are storytellers by nature and when asked a question, often answer with a story. Their stories can be moving and compelling. There are times when simply having a parent at the table has an impact.

Modeling what a partnership looks like takes place at the organization level (PPAL and DYS), at the local level with Family Support Specialists, and at the individual level. What makes it work is commitment with a healthy respect for family-friendly language and practice. When someone talks about dysfunctional families, PPAL talks about a dysfunctional system. When someone says a family has given up, a Family Support Specialist will say they have experienced lots of failures and feel lost.

Youth can also be powerful agents of change. At one state JDAI conference, PPAL pulled together a panel of parents and young people who had experienced the juvenile justice system firsthand. One young man spoke of how he almost lost the relationship with his brother because of the ban on sibling visits while he was in lockup for two years. Although the policy was based on safety considerations, the impact for him was very personal. He advocated for change. Over the next year, sibling visitors were allowed to attend family functions at programs statewide.

Change has come in small steps and large ones. It can be a powerful thing. It is people who make change and systems that benefit. Maybe someday soon, the mother who called us will know her involvement makes an important difference.

Lisa Lambert is the Executive Director of the Parent/Professional Advocacy League (PPAL), a statewide, family-run, grassroots organization based in Massachusetts. Besides direct work with families, she has authored several studies which collect data from families and youth, promoted family stories in the media and advocates for policies which improve the lives of children, youth and families.


Meri Viano is the Director of Community Outreach and Partnership at the Parent/Professional Advocacy League (PPAL). She supports families through leadership, training and advocacy as well as working with many local police departments. She promotes family voice on committees focused on juvenile justice, child welfare, trauma and youth voice.