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Navigating the Juvenile Justice System: Five Tips on How to Get You and Your Child Through it

Hearing the words "your child is under arrest" is a nightmare for every parent. While everybody hopes this is not a sentence they ever have to hear that is not the case for some. We at PA Parent and Family Alliance understand the immense stress and anxiety this can cause not only the child who has found themselves on the wrong side of the law but also the family of that child. We sat down with Wendy Luckenbill who is a Senior Recovery and Resilience Specialist- for children, youth, and their families to get her advice on how a parent should navigate the often confusing and treacherous waters of the juvenile justice system.

empty court room

1. Speak up and be a part of every step of the process

Luckenbill wanted to remind parents to speak up for themselves during the entire process. "Ask questions and don't be afraid to fully participate and make sure you understand everything clearly," said Luckenbill. She recommends talking with everyone involved in the process including your child's probation officer (if they have one) as well as trying to get an overview of your child's case from their attorney (again, if they have one). Having a full grasp on the situation and process will allow you to feel a little more in control, and hopefully will ease some anxiety. Luckenbill also stated that utilizing the available resources will help you further understand what you are about to go through like reading literature and guides on the topic and contacting organizations that can offer help and support.

We at PA Family Alliance see the enormous benefit of speaking to someone who has been in your shoes, and Luckenbill agreed this can be a great tool for parents to utilize. She explained to us that one of the first things a parent can do when they are presented with their child being on the wrong side of the law is to talk to anybody and everybody that has been there before. By discussing the experiences of other primary caregivers you can not only feel less alone but also get a better grasp on what might be coming your way. Having personal connections with caregivers who have made it through the system and now have children who are flourishing can instill much-needed hope in you and your family.

2. Remember it is temporary

Luckenbill informed us that is a massive goal of the juvenile system to ensure that no child feels like they belong there. She expressed how exciting a time it was to be studying and advocating for children in the juvenile system because of how the system is transforming. She told us that there are literature and studies backing the idea that nobody benefits from being locked up for a long time and the system strive for a balanced and restorative approach to juvenile justice. The goal is to have the youth restore any harm they may have done so that they can move on and live a productive and happy life. They want to get children in and out of the system as fast as possible and they more often than not try and opt for alternatives to probations and detention. There are strong preferences for keeping children in the custody of their primary caregiver and having parents and family stay connected to their child during the process.

father and son watching tv together

It is important for parents to recognize that it will not last forever. The system wants to get your child in and out as fast as possible and instill in them the idea that they don't belong there. You, your child, and your entire family will get through this. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it sometimes feels like you are at a dead end.

3. Remain positive with your child

Much like the court is you should also be treating your child with balanced and restorative justice. Luckenbill explained that you should stay positive with your child throughout the process. "Don't punish them, but support them to make positive and constructive decisions about their life. Infuse as much positivity and hope into your child as possible," said Luckenbill. She went on to say that this would be a really good time to seek family counseling so that everybody feels heard and communication paths stay healthy and open. Seeking professional help can allow everybody to stay hopeful and positive during this trying and stressful time.

mother and teenage son hugging

"It is not in parenting 101 to deal with something like this, we are supposed to have control of our children and punish them when they do something wrong. It can be hard to not get caught up in a spiral of increasing the punishments." explained Luckenbill. That is why it is imperative to actively chose to treat your child with positivity and reward them when they are doing well. Her advice above all else is to simply; "love your kid".

4. Do not feel like it is your fault (or at least try)

"Well, we all think it's our fault. I don't think we necessarily give ourselves credit when our child succeeds, but we always think when they mess up that it is on us. We could have watched them better, we could have not gone to bed early that one night. It isn't your fault it is just the cost of parenting. It is the luck of the draw." said Luckenbill. She wants to reinforce that children and young adults have a tendency to partake in risky behavior and parents cannot blame themselves for this. While Luckenbill wants you to not blame yourself, she also said it is a very natural response. In fact, blaming your child, yourself, or society has no positive impact on the outcome and should be avoided if possible.

teenage girl holding hands with an adult woman talking

5. Look at this as a learning experience

On par with remaining positive and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, Wendy wants parents and children to use this as a learning opportunity. "As long as it does not evolve into an adult issue you should look at it as a learning experience and as a way to get extra help and guidance." She said from the moment you hear that your child is on the wrong side of the law to the moment it is all over you should be utilizing it as an experience to grow as a parent and for your child to grow as a human. This can be hard to do in such a trying and stressful time but according to Luckenbill; "try and find some positive ways to look at it, it will be over, and it will probably be better than when you started".

Luckenbill's overall message is to remain positive, learn from this, and never stop showing your child love. She recognizes that it is not just your child going through this, it is your whole family. This can be an incredibly daunting and scary moment in your life, but it will be over, keep on showing your child that you have hope in the person that they are and are becoming.

For a Guide to Family Involvement in the PA Juvenile System (which Luckenbill was the subcommittee chair on) click here

For information on how to access and utilize a public defender in your county click here

For a link to a video of Luckenbill describing the transformative work that her and her colleagues have been working on click here

Are you having trouble advocating for your child, or even knowing where to start? Reach out to one of our free and confidential Family Support Partners at 888-273-2361 or online here.


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