Kinship Care & Collaboration as Juvenile Justice Reform: Q&A with Felipe Franco

Growing research continues to support that restorative practices allow youth to remain in their homes and schools, help systems-involved families heal and keep communities intact. As such, prioritizing kinship care as a means to prevent out-of-home youth from becoming dually involved is reflected in juvenile justice and child welfare organizations’ practices and priorities nationwide. Additionally, models like the Crossover Youth Practice Model (CYPM) exemplify the need for cross-sector collaboration in advocating for youth to remain with family and community at all costs when possible. ASCI spoke with two leaders in the sector working to improve the lives of youth and prevent them from becoming dually involved—or system-involved at all—through their various youth and family initiatives. 

Felipe A. Franco

Senior Fellow for Young Adult Practice

Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative

The Annie E. Casey Foundation 

ASCI: How can reform measures like diversion programs, restorative justice and community-based programming prevent youth from entering the juvenile justice system? How can these measures work to reduce the disproportionate number of children of color represented in the system? 

Felipe Franco: Young people have the best chances to grow and thrive when they are with loving, supportive families and in healthy, strong communities. Supporting families to stay together is the most effective way of helping young people transition successfully to adulthood. This aligns with A Second Chance, Inc.’s mission and focus on providing strengths-based, trauma-informed, culturally competent supports and stability to prevent youth from entering systems. So, all the tactics and approaches that you’ve mentioned—diversion programs, restorative justice and community-based programming—are opportunities for the juvenile justice system to reduce the likelihood of young people being removed from their families. 
The good news is that in the last 10 years we have seen a significant decrease in the number of young people in juvenile justice institutions. The bad news is that still the United States has more youth and young adults in institutions than any other country — and most are Black, Latino and Native American.  

This overrepresentation of youth of color in child welfare and in the juvenile justice system is unacceptable.  As we know that differential responses, restorative justice and diversion programs not only erase these disparities, but ensure all young people who experience the child welfare or juvenile justice systems have equitable access and opportunities to grow up in families.   

Many adolescents and young adults who end up in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems do so because of behavioral challenges and conflict at home, these families need the right supports and the right programs. Their families need help in nurturing healthy relationships with these young people who hurtling through adolescents and into adulthood. Parents need an understanding of adolescent brain development during adolescence and young adulthood, and a network of extended family and positive adults to support them and their sons/daughters. When those supports are in place, young people do much better. We know and we have heard directly from young people that it’s important for them to feel part of something bigger, to feel part of a community and to stay connected their cultural and historical roots. Youth and young adults need to also feel affirmed in terms of their culture, ethnicity and sexual orientation as an essential step in developing their identity.  
We need to stop the use of institutions in child welfare and juvenile justice and prevent the trauma of out-of-home placement. Institutions are detrimental to youth’s development, and if youth need to ever be placed in a group setting, it should be home-like, small and close to their home and families. The Juvenile Justice system also needs to stop its reliance in prescribing intervention and programs without any familiar, community or cultural roots, that at the end of the day undermine the ability of families and communities to develop their own solutions.   We need to start working with families, youth and communities.  
I know we can do better because in New York City we were able to reduce by 65% the likelihood of a child being in detention and the cases in placement by 75%. And we eliminated the use of large state institutions, ensuring that all NYC juvenile delinquents are placed in small, home-like settings, close to home, close to their families and kin. 

ASCI: Can you discuss how we can work across sectors to meet the needs of those youth who are at risk of becoming crossover youth? How do you think kinship care practice can aid in reducing the number of at-risk crossover youth? 

FF: My experience in New York City Administration for Children’s Services Division of Youth and Family Justice was that 65% of young people in the juvenile justice system were known by the child welfare system. We used this data to focus on preventing youth from entering either system by supporting families.  We also in partnership with the courts, child welfare, prosecutors and juvenile justice implemented the Cross Over Youth Practice Model.   
We know housing stability and long-lasting supportive relationships make a big difference because young people need to feel like they have a stable place to be. That’s always best achieved through living with family or kin. Lack of housing stability and placement in group settings increase the likelihood of crossing over from child welfare to the juvenile justice or even the criminal justice system. Again, African-American youth and young adults are overrepresented in each system and tend to be placed in institutional settings making them more likely to crossover. So, anything that we can do in child welfare to keep families together and young people in the community is going reduce the likelihood of crossing over to the juvenile justice system. 

ASCI: What do you think the education system can do better to help reduce the number of youth coming into contact with the system? 

FF: Restorative practices have been implemented very successfully in school settings. Where, they can create a sense of community where young people — who are going to make mistakes or experience conflict — can find a way of resolving conflict while learning to be accountable for keeping a safe and harmonious school community. Schools are starting to realize the importance of social and emotional development for learning and have started to implement restorative practices. Sadly, the juvenile justice system punishes you but doesn’t create enough opportunities for you to make up for the harm that you made before. Restorative practices are grounded in the idea that you must make up, restore, and create a community between those who have caused harm and those who have been victimized. So, I think there’s a lot of promising activity with these productive practices in schools and communities. There is also a growing body of work that integrates restorative practices within the context of family understanding that sometimes those harmed the most are closer to us. 

Again, we know young people in child welfare, children or adolescents, who are with family do so much better. We are also beginning to understand and appreciate more the power of culture, of being with those who are like you and understand where you came from. And the context of family, particularly kin and fictive kin, provide that. The more that we do to support families before challenges come to the attention of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, the better the young people are going to be. The two systems are encountering challenging adolescent behavior, within the context of schools and home, and families will need the right supports. That could be coaching, therapy or other kinds of support or respite, as everyone needs a break. 
We have seen how systems who have embraced kinship in child welfare are achieving better outcomes, we are curious on how to adapt and expand the use of kinship and fictive kin interventions in other human services and in juvenile justice settings.  

ASCI: Should systems actively listen to youth voices to achieve effective prevention of system involvement? 

FF: One thing to reemphasize is that instead of thinking about systems—like the juvenile [justice] or child welfare system—we have to step back and think about what’s at stake for these young people and how we support them through what may be the most traumatic experiences of their lives. We are talking about how this all shapes and influences how well-prepared they are to go out into the world and chart healthier pathways for their futures. Young people tell us all the time that they often feel like they have no control or say over these huge decisions that are going to affect their lives. They often feel like others—adults who aren’t even their family, adults who run systems—are making decisions for them and about them without enough regard for their understanding of their own experiences, their feelings, thoughts, concerns, wishes, etc. Their voices matter and we need to listen. 
Young people will remind us that it’s less about the systems and more about getting the support that they need without having to give up on their family. And, as a former system leader, I think it kind of dawns on us to question bureaucracy and our rules and figure out what it is that families and youth need. We need to be guided by what young people and families need independent of “the system.” 

This Q&A was originally featured in the National Kinship Review.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of A Second Chance, Inc.

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