I attended the Family and Youth Engagement in School-Justice Partnership: Voices from the Field webinar put on by the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, and conducted by PRA’s own Jacqui Greene on November 28, 2017. The talk, which featured clips from NCMHJJ’s Family and Youth Engagement to Keep Kids in School podcast series, looked into ways to prevent the juvenile justice system from being used as a behavioral health service system. The way to do this, Greene argued, is through family engagement.

I was interested in participating in this webinar because my 9-year-old nephew, who is being raised by my parents (and consequentially is essentially my adoptive brother) has behavioral and mental health needs that influence his day-to-day functioning. He hasn’t had any run-ins with the juvenile justice system yet, but is more likely to than his peers without behavioral and mental health needs.

According to Greene’s statistics, it is kids like my nephew that family engagement will benefit. Of the 12 percent of students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), these students account for 25 percent of in-school arrests. Students with disabilities are twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension, and those who receive a suspension or expulsion are three times as likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system as their peers. Twenty percent of the general student population has a mental disorder, while 70 percent of students involved with juvenile justice do. Only 8 percent of the population has a substance use disorder, but 46.2 percent of juvenile justice-involved students do. And 25 percent of students have been exposed to a traumatic event, compared to 90 percent of those involved with the juvenile justice system.

Family and youth engagement is just one of four key components of the school responder model, which favors behavioral health screening and a restorative justice model over suspension and arrest in cases of school infractions.

“We are not saying that behavioral health needs excuse behavior, but they may explain behavior,” Greene explains. “The school responder model is really getting to the root cause of behavior and providing kids with the support they need to address those causes.”

But while the other three responder model components can be addressed by way of structural and policy adjustments, for family engagement schools rely on parents to be, well, engaged. This is easier said than done. Greene says it is often difficult to reach familiesthey may not return phone calls or answer the door when teachers or administrators knock. In these cases, not only is a school-family collaboration impossible, consent forms may go unsigned by the parent, which prevents the child from receiving services he or she might need.

According to Dr. Cecilia Singh of the Child Study Center at Yale, professionals often see parents who aren’t engaging with their child’s school as uncaring. This is not always the case, though. In a focus group with parents, Singh saw that it is often fear that keeps parents awayfear of having a voice at a table of behavioral health professionals and fear that the fate of their family is outside of their control. Even Greene, who speaks to hundreds of people at a time about the importance of family engagement, said she gets nervous when going into her own child’s IEP meeting. By considering the experience of parents, schools and service providers can develop strategies to engage families in the school responder model.

Why is family engagement important? Dr. Jeana Bracey of the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut says there are two reasons. One is that parents should be informed of a school’s shift to the responder modelthat the school is working to prevent their child from run-ins with juvenile justiceand that the family needs to be involved for the process to be successful. Secondly, parents know their kids best: they can provide ideas for alternative forms of discipline, based on what they know their child responds to.

To better serve students with mental and behavioral health disabilities, Greene suggests that school administrators build real relationships with parents. One parent featured in the podcasts says about parent-school meetings, “It’s more than a pizza.” Many schools will try to entice parents to come in by buying food for the meeting, but in reality, only a strong relationship between parents and the school will make a student’s treatment plan work. Greene also identifies the importance of peer engagement. Adults always figure teenagers struggling with their mental or behavioral health will go to teachers or counselors, when in reality they go to their friends first. Therefore, schools should educate students on Mental Health First Aid, as many of them will be the first responders to a distressed peer.

During the discussion portion of the webinar I asked Greene what she would say to parents (or in my nephew’s case, grandparents) of younger children with mental or behavioral health disabilities who are at risk of coming into contact with the juvenile justice system. She said it is important to understand the health needs of your child early on and to inform any adult the child will be in the care of (teachers, camp counselors, afterschool program instructors, etc.) of those needs. Explain the connection between your child’s disabilities and their actions, so if they act out while in another adult’s care, he or she will think twice about kicking them out of the program.