Even under the best of circumstances, it’s often hard for teenagers and their parents to communicate effectively with each other and understand one another’s behavior, motivation, or point of view. These difficulties can sometimes be more pronounced in families with teenagers involved in the juvenile justice system, given that poor parent-child relationships, family conflict, and other negative family dynamics are risk factors for juvenile delinquency.
Nonetheless, Tulsa Fellows Ashley Harvey and Brooke Tuttle have been impressed by the commitment shown by participants in their Family Strengthening Project to solve problems that led to their teen’s involvement with the Tulsa County Family Center for Juvenile Justice (TCFCJJ), which provides services to youth involved with the Tulsa County Juvenile Court.
“Parents and teens have been candid, vulnerable, open, honest, and willing to work on tough issues so they can have stronger families,” said Tuttle. One mother, for instance, continues to attend Harvey’s and Tuttle’s family group sessions even though her son has been moved from the detention center where he had been housed to another facility. She takes copies of the activities home and works on them over the phone with her son during his weekly call privileges.
“This example of dedication to family is one of many that I have witnessed during the fellowship,” Tuttle said.
In an instance Harvey said “will forever touch my heart,” one teen participant related that, until joining the Family Strengthening Project, his only memories of his parents together were of them arguing. Now, his parents are able to put their disagreements aside to be there for their children.
“You all have begun to heal our family,” he told Harvey and Tuttle.
The Family Strengthening Project focuses on family bonding, consistent parenting, family values, communication, and creating a smooth transition for youth from the justice system to the home environment. Harvey and Tuttle, both doctoral students in Oklahoma State University’s (OSU) Human Development and Family Science program, intentionally limit their group sessions to four or five families to allow participants to bond with one another and feel comfortable speaking openly and honestly about difficult, personal subjects. By promoting family cohesion, positive communication, and family problem-solving for youth involved in the justice system, Harvey and Tuttle hope that families acquire the skills to break the generational cycle of criminal involvement that plagues many of the families in their program.
Harvey and Tuttle’s project grew from their shared concern about the high rate of incarceration in Oklahoma, particularly among women. That concern, coupled with their common interest in risk and resilience research for families involved with the justice system—including studies pointing to strong family relationships as a key protective factor for youth at-risk of delinquency—led them to pursue a partnership with TCFCJJ.
Harvey’s interest in these topics comes from personal experience, having grown up in a home where her mother both used and dealt methamphetamine, activities that eventually led to her arrest when Harvey was 12.
“I have learned, through my own struggles during adolescence, how difficult life can be for youth within our community,” says Harvey. “But I also learned the power of resilience through positive social connections. I’m extremely fortunate to have had numerous people in my life help me through that difficult time, which inspires my passion to instill resilience in families.”
TCFCJJ, which had recently changed its name from the Tulsa County Juvenile Bureau to reflect a greater emphasis on family programing and trauma-informed approaches, offered “overwhelming” support for the project, Harvey says, adopting a “true partnership” with both students, which they say has been critical to the success of their program. In particular, they credit the guidance of site mentor Rob Mouser, TCFCJJ’s clinical director, for making their work possible.
Harvey and Tuttle say their close collaboration with TCFCJJ is a strong signal that the project will be sustained beyond their Fellowship year. They plan to work alongside Mouser to seek out potential funding opportunities for project sustainability. And given that TCFCJJ’s clinical team includes graduate students completing their mental health counseling internships—who were integral to their project’s launch, implementation, and early successes—Tuttle sees great potential to create university partnerships that would sustain the project.
One promising development is that the therapist at the detention center where they implemented their project would like to add a mentoring component for program graduates. This idea has already led to a pilot program of sorts, where Harvey and Tuttle invited two graduates of their first cohort to be ambassadors for the project to the second cohort. The graduates welcomed new families into the Family Strengthening Project, shared their own experiences in the project, co-facilitated a family tree activity, and offered their support for youth participants.
“This is just one example of the many ways in which this project could grow,” says Tuttle.
Harvey called the Fellowship experience “an extraordinary opportunity” to connect with a diverse group of individuals who share a passion for service to others.
“I’ve gained incredible insight through collaboration and discussions with the other Fellows,” she said. “Their kindness and compassion, along with their intelligence and strong work ethic, inspire me daily.”
Tuttle said she is grateful that she will remain forever connected to “a group of people across the nation who are forward thinking, people-focused and community-minded, with the common goal of applying knowledge toward small project development to promote health.”
She added, “Thanks to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, I will pursue my academic and professional goals armed with new interdisciplinary perspectives on combating health issues in my community.”