Family Justice Program

Vera's Family Justice Program provides training and technical assistance to help community-based organizations and government agencies—such as corrections, parole and probation, and juvenile justice entities—adapt case management styles that are strength-based and family focused. The Family Justice Program is an outgrowth of La Bodega de la Familia, a Vera spin-off that became the independent nonprofit organization Family Justice and broke new ground in leveraging families as a resource to break cycles of system involvement. The training and technical assistance work of Family Justice joined Vera as a new program in December 2009 when the former entity ceased operations.

Expanding the Use of Family-Based Case Management

Case management tools and methods designed by Family Justice seek to help service providers tailor their assistance in ways that engage families and other key individuals as a source of support. Program staff are currently training corrections personnel and parole officers in Oklahoma and New Mexico to use these tools and methods. They are also partnering with local jurisdictions to adapt the approach for jail facilities. Both initiatives are funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

In addition, the program recently piloted a new Juvenile Relational Inquiry Tool in Arizona, Ohio, and Michigan. Modeled after a similar tool for adults in prison, the Juvenile Relational Inquiry Tool helps juvenile justice case managers build on incarcerated youths’ strengths and social connections. It also helps staff build rapport with youth and collect information that can enhance reentry planning. This project was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Why We Need This Program

Juvenile and adult justice agencies are increasingly aware of the role that families and social networks play in the lives of incarcerated individuals or people under justice supervision. Yet these agencies often do not know how to tap families as a resource. The Family Justice Program provides tools, training, and technical assistance to help governments and agencies overcome obstacles to implementing family focused, strength-based policies and planning. All Family Justice Program initiatives are customized according to input from the people involved with the justice system and their families and agency staff.

For more information, read the Family Justice Program overview or contact program director Margaret diZerega.

Projects

A New Role for Technology: The Impact of Video Visitation on Corrections Staff, Inmates, and their Families

This study, funded by the National Institute of Justice, will explore whether providing incarcerated people with access to video visitation improves the nature and frequency of prisoners’ contact with their families and other people who support them. It will also explore if these contacts improve their compliance with custodial rules and outcomes after their release from prison.

Families as Partners: Support for Youth Reentry in Ohio

Vera is helping the Ohio Department of Youth Services (DYS) develop and refine tools to establish and implement a family-oriented approach in its policies and practices. The partnership will enhance Ohio’s ability to serve young people in its juvenile justice system as well as their families. It will also advance an approach other jurisdictions can use to work more closely with youth and their social networks. The project is supported by the Public Welfare Foundation.

Family-Youth Initiative (FYI): Developing National Standards in Juvenile Justice for Engaging Family

The Family Justice Program is partnering with the Performance-based Standards Learning Institute (PbS Li) to develop national standards for juvenile correctional facilities to engage incarcerated youths’ family members in all aspects of the youths’ incarceration. PbS Li has developed a system of Performance-based Standards (PbS) that allows agencies and facilities to identify, monitor, and improve conditions and treatment services for incarcerated youth using national standards and outcome measures. This project is funded by the Public Welfare Foundation.

Housing and Employment Opportunities within the Housing Authority of New Orleans

The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) strives to offer meaningful access to public housing and employment opportunities for people with criminal records and to keep communities safe and vibrant. Vera is providing research and policy guidance to HANO to inform screening processes that will allow for individualized assessments of the suitability of people with criminal convictions for HANO-assisted housing and employment in the city of New Orleans. This approach aims to reduce long-term negative consequences of criminal convictions while fostering fair and safe communities.

NYCHA Family Reentry Pilot: Reuniting Families in New York City Public Housing

The Vera Institute’s Family Justice Program (Vera) is partnering with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the Corporation for Supportive Housing, the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS), and multiple nonprofit reentry service providers to develop, implement, and study a two-year pilot program that reunites 150 eligible formerly incarcerated individuals with their families in public housing while also providing them with case management services. This project is supported with funding from the Tiger Foundation and DHS.

Preparing Youth for Success: Family Engagement in the Washington, DC Juvenile Justice System

The District of Columbia Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) is making strides in its efforts to engage families in their work with young people involved in the juvenile justice system. Vera is conducting research to identify opportunities to help DYRS increase family engagement in all detention facilities and community-based placements. The goal is to provide DYRS with a strong foundation as it moves forward with a strength-based, family-focused approach to its work with court-involved youth.

The Impact of Family Involvement: What Visitation Can Mean for Juvenile Justice Outcomes

Vera’s Family Justice Program is partnering with the Indiana Department of Correction, Division of Youth Services (DYS) to study the importance of family visitation for incarcerated youth and to provide the field with lessons about the challenges and benefits of implementing enhanced visitation policies that expand opportunities for family contact.

The Impact of Family Visitation on Incarcerated Youth's Behavior and School Performance: Findings from the Families as Partners Project
04/30/2013
From February 2010 through March 2013, Vera’s Family Justice Program partnered with the Ohio Department of Youth Services (DYS) on the Families as Partners project. The work sought to promote better outcomes for incarcerated youth by helping staff draw on youth’s families as a source of material...
Families as Partners: Supporting Incarcerated Youth in Ohio
12/31/2011
Research shows that incarcerated young people who sustain positive relationships with loved ones have better outcomes during and after being in juvenile justice placement facilities than youth who do not. This brief summarizes the first year of a research and technical assistance project the Vera...
Close to Home: Building on Family Support for People Leaving Jail
09/30/2011
Most research and programming about incarcerated people and their family support systems focus on prison settings. Because jail is substantially different from prison—most notably, time served there is usually shorter—it is not clear that policies and practices that work in prisons can be applied...
Setting an agenda for family-focused justice reform
05/12/2011
Juvenile and criminal justice systems are increasingly adopting family-focused policies and practices, primarily because research shows that contact with supportive family members can result in better outcomes when individuals are released and return to the community. A family-focused approach to...
02/19/2014
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Margaret diZerega
Director, Family Justice Program
Ryan Shanahan
Senior Program Associate, Family Justice Program
Allon Yaroni
Research Director, Center on Sentencing and Corrections | Family Justice Program | Child Welfare, Health, and Justice

The Family Justice Program develops creative initiatives with a wide range of partners, including government, community-based, and faith-based organizations. Research shows that the program’s strength-based, family-focused approach results in better outcomes for people who are involved in the justice system and for their families.

The Family Justice Program’s approach to family case management (originally called The Bodega Model®) reflects the following guiding principles and values: 

  • Respect for all individuals and families 
  • A broad, inclusive definition of family
  • Recognition of family members as experts on their own lives who set their own goals
  • Promotion of families’ and communities’ strengths 
  • Consideration of people in the context of their relationships and social networks
  • Acknowledgement of existing services as resources (and efforts to avoid duplication)

The program uses a broad definition of family that includes friends, significant others, clergy, co-workers, and other important individuals in a social network. Research shows that, even though they have limited ability to fulfill their roles as caregivers, providers, parents, and companions, people in jail or prison benefit from maintaining contact with supportive family members. Juvenile justice, corrections, probation, and parole personnel often overlook the valuable roles that family members can play during incarceration and the transition home.

How do family members contribute?

  • A man brings his niece and nephew to visit their mother in jail.
  • A mother participates in a conference call with a facility case manager in preparation for her son’s release.
  • A woman provides housing to her brother after his release and helps with child care, transportation, or financial support. 
  • A close friend can talk things over and be a shoulder to lean on. 
  • An uncle or pastor lends computer skills, helps fill out an application, or knows a small-business owner who can offer a job.
  • A young man checks in to make sure his grandmother is taking her medication.

When a person is involved in the juvenile or criminal justice system, the whole family is affected—and strong family support is critical to the individual’s success.

The Family Justice Program uses several tools and methods that help staff identify the strengths of individuals and families. 

  • Supportive inquiry is a creative process of gathering information by asking nonjudgmental open-ended questions. Rather than focusing on people’s deficits (such as substance abuse or criminal history), staff ask questions that promote new insights about individual and family strengths, productive behaviors, and healthy coping mechanisms. Staff acknowledge people’s challenges, but also value their skills and talents.
  • The genogram is a diagram of a person’s family and social network. This family mapping tool shows age, gender, and the nature of relationships (positive, conflicted, or neutral). The participant and others identify individuals to include in the diagram, often in response to questions asked by a case manager who works for a government agency or community-based organization. A genogram may also include information about employment, education, mental health, involvement in the justice system, and other relevant details. The Family Justice Program encourages people to emphasize and depict their family members’ strengths when creating a genogram. ecomap
  • The ecomap (pictured at right) displays government and community resources the participant and his or her family use, including informal and formal organizations. Examples of informal organizations are the corner deli, the community garden, and the local basketball league. Formal ones are typically government and private agencies that play a role in the lives of the participant and family. These may include a school, a community-based agency providing preventive services, a clinic, a drug treatment program, or a peer support group at a local ministry. 

Ecomaps can display agencies’ conflicting goals or demands and often highlight the need for coordination. They show sources of support that family members and staff may tap in new ways.

  • The Relational Inquiry Tool is a list of eight carefully crafted questions supported by a training module. Family Justice created the tool for use by corrections staff in providing day-to-day case management and developing reentry plans. Another version of the tool was designed for use by juvenile corrections staff. As a complement to standard risk and needs assessments, the Relational Inquiry Tool helps staff learn about important resources for successful reentry: families and social networks.

The goals of the Relational Inquiry Tool are:

  • to provide staff with a user-friendly method of recognizing and reinforcing positive connections to family and social networks during and after incarceration
  • to build rapport between the professional using the tool and the incarcerated individual.

The Relational Inquiry Tool was developed with support from the National Institute of Corrections and in partnership with state departments of corrections in Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, and Oklahoma, and with the Safer Foundation in Chicago. The Juvenile Relational Inquiry Tool was developed with support from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and in partnership with juvenile justice departments in Arizona, Michigan, and Ohio.

  • The Gang Assessment Form, developed with guidance from Danielle Sered, director of the Vera demonstration project Common Justice, helps case managers initiate nonjudgmental conversations with families about the impact gang activity has on them. Designed with open-ended questions that build on the strengths of the youth, family, and community, the Gang Assessment Form makes it easier for case managers to talk about gang activity and assists them in guiding youth to make choices about gang affiliation or other involvement.

Additional resources

  • Read more on involving families in case management.
  • Read a coaching packet, "Engaging Offenders' Families in Reentry," written by the Family Justice Program's director, Margaret diZerega. The Center for Effective Public Policy developed this packet to help jurisdictions implement effective practices and improve reentry outcomes.
  • Read an article about the Juvenile Relational Inquiry Tool in The Link, a newsletter of the Child Welfare League of America.
  • Read an article about the Relational Inquiry Tool from Corrections Today.
  • Read a handbook, “Implementing the Family Support Approach for Community Supervision,” developed with the American Probation and Parole Association. This document provides more detail on how parole and probation officers can use ecomaps and genograms in the supervision process to integrate families and includes examples from officers in field on how the tools have been useful.

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