National Youth Justice Action Month: Q&A with Shielah DeBlanc

President, Joseph R. Biden Jr. proclaimed October National Youth Justice Action Month (NYJAM).

During National Youth Justice Action Month, I call upon States and communities to join me in seeking justice for our youth and modernizing our juvenile justice system, a system that should allow young people to build their lives and grow with freedom and dignity.

President Joseph R. Biden

A Second Chance, Inc. (ASCI) is highlighting NYJAM by speaking with Shielah DeBlanc, IHCS Director II at ASCI about juvenile justice reform, community involvement, and kinship care.

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?

When discussing juvenile justice reform, it is imperative to also recognize the importance of child and adolescent development.  Research shows that without reform measures there is an emphasis on confinement which disconnects the youth from critical modes of development including positive peer and academic socialization, parental involvement, as well as activities that promote healthy critical thinking and decision-making.

Juvenile justice reform emphasizes making something or someone whole again which by proxy implies one would learn to be accountable. This idea of taking ownership of one’s choices is not only crucial to development, but it is also necessary for the prevention of juvenile and age-based offenses as well as reducing recidivism. Reform is a strong method of prevention because it is a reinvestment of time, energy, resources, and funding into efforts that would reduce racial and ethnic disparities namely in black and brown communities where we know youth are incarcerated at higher rates.

Programs such as juvenile diversion provide the restorative option instead of the easy option which unfortunately is to prolong youth involvement with the juvenile justice system. Many times, when youth are involved in the system, it is common for adults to look at the what and the who instead of the why. In doing so, the juvenile justice system has historically shown stereotypical bias. The reform measures can offer a chance for youth to express their why, in a way they are heard, understood, and can be helped.   

With October being National Youth Justice Action Month, how can the community take action to raise awareness, seek justice for our youth, and abolish and/or reform the juvenile justice system? Should systems actively listen to youth voices to achieve effective prevention of system involvement, why?

The community plays a big role in awareness efforts. Through events and activities, each community member has a stake in our youths’ future which can further prevent juvenile justice system involvement. First and foremost, our youth need to have a voice. Giving youth a forum in which they are able to speak about how they are affected by the justice system and whether or not they feel like valuable members of the community is critical.  Community members would do well to empower youth to share their stories, give their perspectives, and then rally around understanding how we can advocate for these needs as one community, instead of community silos. Acknowledging and prioritizing youth traumas and acknowledging youth loss in the community could be beneficial to raising awareness and seeking justice.  It will help our children understand that we are not immune to their struggles and challenges.

How can kinship care aid in better outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system?

Kinship care provides a network in which familiarity and comfortability are at the forefront of the transition and adaptation to an event or lifestyle.  At A Second Chance, we have multiple cross-over youth (dual systems) which can be challenging for our families to navigate. Involvement in multiple systems means involvement in multiple processes and the need for an understanding of which process to prioritize. Fortunately, when you have kinship care, the premise of the previously established positive relationship should speak to the investment in youth success regardless of the system. Kinship care is predicated on the support of a team that is healthy in the sense that it distributes the weight of the child’s needs and challenges. This is helpful in improving outcomes for youth with juvenile justice involvement because there are multiple stakeholders that will check in regularly with a youth’s mental, emotional, and behavioral state. The presence of support and check-ins of a kinship care team can increase self-autonomy in decision-making.

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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