As I recently reported, there is no shortage of incarcerated youth. Currently, there are 54,000 juvenile offenders in youth-detention facilities across the nation. Of those kids, in an average year, 17,800 have not even been sentenced. According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, they “are just awaiting their turn in court.” What’s more, another 200,000 youth “are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults” every year. That means a quarter of a million kids are taken from their homes—while brothers and sisters watch it happen. And as one British study noted, “Older sibling offending was related to younger sibling offending in both brothers and sisters.”
“Removing a young person from their family is a traumatic and negative situation, and is something that we can avoid,” Ryan says. “If a young person does pose a serious threat to public safety, removing them from the home should be a last resort.” I recently spoke to Ryan about what happens when society imprisons youth. An edited and abridged version follows.
Juleyka Lantigua-Williams: What has been your experience with families of incarcerated youth?
Liz Ryan: Families in general—the parents of these young people, the siblings of these young people—are not taken into consideration in any way whatsoever by the justice system. When a young person’s locked up, the state becomes their parent. That’s the theory in the juvenile-justice system, which really runs counter to what the research shows. The research shows that young people thrive in families. They do best when they’re with their families.
While the parents are often overlooked and not considered part of the mix at all, the siblings are completely invisible. In the time that I’ve been doing this work, which is roughly 20 years, maybe a little more, I’ve seen nothing written about how the siblings fare when they have an incarcerated brother or sister.
When I talk to families who have a child locked up, it has a serious negative effect on the whole family. The financial cost of it, plus that young person being away for all the holidays, not being there for graduations, for proms, for all those kind of life events. The emotional toll that it takes on people is really difficult.
Lantigua-Williams: Can you recall an example of a family where the siblings remained behind?
Ryan: I’m thinking of a family whose son was tried in adult court in Virginia. He was placed in adult prison about five hours away from where they lived. He had a younger sister. The parents had saved money for the kids to go to college, and they basically spent that money visiting their son in prison and trying to stay in touch with him and put money on his canteen. They spent the money that they had saved for college for the younger sibling on the older brother. The sister understood. She was not upset because she wanted the family to stay connected. But you can imagine what the future life outcome of that young person is when the family’s savings are drained. A family that already is strapped financially, and the little savings that they do have is now being used to defend or to keep in touch with their son. This young man had threatened to commit suicide. He was a teenager in adult prison; he was afraid all the time. So the family responded to that by trying to go visit him every weekend. It’s a five-hour drive, so you have to drive down, stay overnight, visit the next day, and then drive back.