Family Matters: Testimony Before NY Council

The Children’s Village President and CEO Dr. Jeremy Kohomban testified before the NYC Council’s Committee on Juvenile Justice on September 21. Citing research and frontline experience, his testimony highlighted the critical need for family engagement to the long-term success of youth involved with the justice system. Dr. Kohomban concluded with three specific recommendations.
The text of his testimony follows:

I am Dr. Jeremy Kohomban, the President and CEO of The Children’s Village, Harlem Dowling, and Inwood House — three organizations founded in Manhattan in the early and mid-1800s.

The Children’s Village, founded in 1851 as the New York Juvenile Asylum, offers some of the earliest historical examples of detention and juvenile justice residential programs in the nation. Today, we provide the broadest continuum of juvenile justice programming in New York. Our continuum includes evidence-based diversion programs to keep at-risk teens with families, non-secure detention when out-of-home care is needed, and aftercare to help youth return to community successfully. Aftercare often includes short-term intensive services followed by our unique privately-funded, long-term aftercare that can extend up to age 25. All of these interventions rely heavily on family engagement for success.

Our long history and recent experience confirm what research has shown: Family engagement is critical to the long-term success of juveniles who are detained and placed.

Let me begin by stating what is probably obvious. The juvenile justice system in New York City is predominately Black and increasingly Brown, with Black juveniles penetrating the systems fastest and furthest.

Researchers Grant Duwe and Valerie Clark1 found that incarcerated adults who had the most visitors while in custody were least likely to reoffend upon release. They also found that visits from a wide variety of people led to lower rates of recidivism. In 2011, Goldweber and Cauffman2 added to our knowledge with their findings that incarcerated youth who received regular visits from family showed reduced signs of depression and generally did better than those who did not have family visitation. Finally, the 2015 evaluation of Juvenile Drug Courts by the US Department of Justice3 found that youth with substance abuse disorders benefited greatly from family engagement. These youth experienced decreased drug use and showed reduced risk for committing personal and property crime.

Let me conclude with three recommendations that are firmly based in our frontline experience.

First, it is critical that we actively encourage family engagement and define family broadly to include extended family, mentors, and any responsible adult who has a positive relationship, cares, and is willing to be engaged. For example, in a situation where we fail to engage the father and his side of the family, we are essentially losing fifty percent of the family connections available to the juvenile.

Second, engagement with families has to begin at the earliest possible opportunity. It is incumbent on us to own the responsibility for creating an organizational culture that welcomes family engagement. Delays and unnecessary separation from family hurt our youth.

Third and finally, while it is not always easy, as a system and as individual providers we must find ways to engage families in the decision-making process. The juveniles in our custody do not belong to us and should not belong to a system. Success is only assured when each juvenile has at least one appropriate and willing adult relationship that provides unconditional belonging. In our experience, this relationship is most often found within the family. In those rare instances when immediate family fails to provide us this appropriate and willing adult, it is our responsibility to find and create such a relationship. Relationships and belonging are the key to personal transformation. Let me also add that in most instances, parents and family members are the best advocates for the juvenile — no one fights harder.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify on this important issue.

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