Family Feedback Informs Improvements: A Series

Youth exist within the context of their families. When the life of a teen is touched by the juvenile legal system, the whole family is impacted. This series of blog posts will share ways that King County is engaging families impacted by the juvenile legal system to better support youth and families. Leading with racial equity requires that family voice and experience are placed at the center and inform King County how best to address and remove current barriers in the juvenile justice legal system.

On the road to Zero Youth Detention, Public Health is committed to ensuring improvements within the current Juvenile Detention system.

“Family and community participation is critical to a trauma-responsive, public health approach,” explains Dr. Margaret Cary, child psychiatrist for King County, “It promotes the collaboration and systemic orientation necessary to address the manifold factors that contribute to juvenile involvement with the legal system in King County.”

Family Interactions through a Racial Equity Lens

When a youth becomes involved in the juvenile legal system, their family may be contacted by a handful of legal system personnel within a 12-hour period and sometimes throughout the night. When parents are contacted by law enforcement, court staff, Juvenile Detention staff, the Department of Public Defense and so on, more often than not, they don’t understand the procedures of the court or what role they as family will play.

While the juvenile legal system in King County is complicated for any teen and their family, it is even more complicated for families from various cultural norms, abilities, learning styles, and those whose speak a language other than English at home. Put simply: family engagement in the juvenile legal system is an equity issue.

King County staff identified a number of ways that the Juvenile Detention system can improve in the way that they communicate with families. Through in person surveys and four focus groups, Juvenile Detention and Public Health with develop:

  1. A Resource Handbook
  2. Video Visitation Policies and Practices
  3. Transportation Support
  4. Plain Language Forms

family engagement


Implementing changes to make the juvenile legal system more accessible for people from marginalized populations results in improved access and experiences for all families. Examples of accessibility improvements include:

  • Forms and resource handbook written in plain language and translated into multiple languages
  • Transportation barriers removed so that families can visit youth
  • Visitation barriers removed so that families can interact with their youth via video

Progress to date

King County staff have completed one focus group with guardians of youth involved with juvenile detention and are currently scheduling a second meeting. This next group taking place in February will address plain language forms and the resource handbook.

King County is also pursuing the following activities to better engage with families impacted by the juvenile legal system:

  • Developing a focus group consisting of youth who have experienced detention
  • Partnering with the University of Washington to collect and measure data for in person surveys
  • Collaborating across government departments including the courts, Prosecuting Attorneys Office, Department of Public Defense, Juvenile Detention, Public Health, Department of Community and Human Services, and Performance Strategy and Budget to identify and pursue improvements as a collective government system

Early Learnings

Early takeaways from family focus groups reveal unsurprising challenges. The system is confusing and families need help understanding how to navigate the system. Families also want more support before they touch the system. Once families do touch the system, families need crisis support and ongoing supports throughout. System changes are not effectively communicated to families, often creating more confusion and problems.

Families are asking for interventions that are effective and King County needs to respond. As Juvenile Detention and Public Health staff continue to listen and learn from families, more will be shared to the blog. Stay tuned!