Overcoming the Stereotyping of Parents for the Benefit of All

Judge Steven TeskeParents can present an enigmatic force in juvenile justice–they can play a positive role in the rehabilitative process or be obstructive.

I have found through the years that a vast majority of parents are concerned about their child. Some do well advocating, but most do not know how–or are afraid to speak up. The key to reducing recidivism is providing essential protective buffers to resist those criminogenic factors. Studies show that family function is the greatest protective buffer against delinquency. Parents are the most powerful force for positive change in the life of a youth–or they can be the most destructive.

Inspired by the core strategies of the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initative (JDAI) of the Annie E. Casey Foundation,    I developed a family conferencing approach to assess detained youth and find alternatives to detention. This front-end loading model identifies the needs of the youth using the assistance of the parents. The objective is to determine the appropriate services–and the delinquency system may not be the best path. Parents attend these meetings, participate in the decision-making process and are educated about the legal process of the court.

I subsequently created another review committee that targets at-risk youth. Most youth referred are from the school system as an alternative to out-of-school suspension and arrest. Again, parents participate in the assessment and development of a treatment plan for their youth.

As a judge, it is my duty to ensure that the child receives due process. We know the technical facet of due process–the right to notice, opportunity to be heard, and so on. The black letter of the law is simple, but in a juvenile justice context I ask if we can do more to effectuate the spirit of due process?

Due process is the cornerstone of a civilized society. It is about fairness. This includes some touchy-feely stuff like respect, kindness and being inclusive of those significant to the youth — such as parents. Parents are proper necessary parties to any delinquency proceeding despite concerns conveyed as to the processing implications on the justice system. We sometimes create a paradox in which we recognize the significant importance parents play in the rehabilitative path of the youth, but at the same time may ignore their role in the child’s legal proceedings. The question that bothers many is what that “role” should look like?

A parent as a party in their child’s delinquency proceeding may have the right to retain counsel for themselves, but not the right to appointed counsel. Legal principles in our Constitution justifiably limit the role a parent can play. A child’s right to counsel and the attorney-client privilege combined may require the exclusion of parents from some attorney-child conversations. Notwithstanding these restrictions on parental involvement, parents  do have an interest and should be included in the sharing of information that does not compromise the child’s constitutional protections.

I ask if a parental exception should be created for privilege communications because the parent and child are so attached–unless, of course, a conflict exists between the child and parent. There is something unnatural about separating a child from his or her parents when that child is looking to them to help make a decision. Then again, in some cases it may create difficulties for the defenders where parents may influence their child to pursue a path not in their legal interest–but that is the nature of the beast. It’s not as if attorneys don’t have experience in dealing with difficult clients who can’t separate the trees from the forest.

It is natural for a parent to want to be included in a process. I often ask stakeholders, “What would you do if the child before you were your own”–or what Bart Lubow of the Annie E. Casey Foundation refers to as the “My Child Test.” This is a multi-dynamic test–it may not only affect my decision whether to detain, but engages me to examine the process from a parent’s perspective.

Hearing that your child may have committed a crime is a shock for most parents–but seeing their child’s empty bed knowing they are in a frightening place without you is traumatic! The “My Child Test” reminds me to do my best to make this horrible experience less traumatic for the parents–speaking a kind word, taking extra time to explain the process, having friendly and responsive staff, and an assigned court officer to follow up with parents and keep them in the loop.

I recently heard parents speak about their experiences with the justice system. They revealed a survey showing that 79 percent of parents were never consulted by a court officer regarding their child and 89 percent were never consulted by a judge. The impression is that parents are not viewed as important in what should be done with their child–some believing the system stakeholders see them as part of the problem.

As in all stereotypes there is some truth–we do encounter more parents than we care to that refuse to participate in needed counseling. The fact remains that the greatest protector against delinquency is family function. It goes without saying that in many instances of delinquency something about family dysfunction contributes to their child’s behavior.

The problem with stereotyping is that we allow the “many instances” of family dysfunction to rent space in our heads–we assume most, if not all, parents are the problem and are in denial of their role in the rehabilitative process. Not only do we risk alienating the many parents who want to take an active part in their child’s rehabilitation, we risk giving up on the “difficult” parents who can make a change in their thinking by working with them.  When we allow parents to be part of their child’s rehabilitative process, they too learn more about themselves and ways to improve their child’s behavior.

I have witnessed many difficult parents change their attitude and become the greatest positive force in their child’s life. I have learned that most of these difficult parents do care–they simply don’t know how to care. It’s our responsibility to encourage, invite and even nudge or push parents to get involve–and we owe it to them to listen. No one said this work was easy—that’s why we get paid to do it–and do it well!

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