Abstract: (see Poster Gallery) Families of Juveniles with Life Sentence: Advocacy and Support in a Changing Policy Landscape (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

All in-person and virtual presentations are in Mountain Standard Time Zone (MST).

SSWR 2023 Poster Gallery: as a registered in-person and virtual attendee, you have access to the virtual Poster Gallery which includes only the posters that elected to present virtually. The rest of the posters are presented in-person in the Poster/Exhibit Hall located in Phoenix A/B, 3rd floor. The access to the Poster Gallery will be available via the virtual conference platform the week of January 9. You will receive an email with instructions how to access the virtual conference platform.

531P (see Poster Gallery) Families of Juveniles with Life Sentence: Advocacy and Support in a Changing Policy Landscape

Saturday, January 14, 2023
Phoenix C, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Zixiaojie Yang, MSW, Ph.D. Student, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background & Purpose: Recent policy trends in the juvenile justice system emphasize distinguishing juveniles from adults. Much of the current reform efforts in juvenile justice have focused on severe punishment. Although numerous studies have highlighted the impact of harsh punishment and incarceration on families, recent research has largely failed to document the experience of families of individuals with a harsh sentence, such as a juvenile life without parole sentence (JLOWP). With the current policy changes, it is essential to understand the experience and the needs of families as their loved ones have the opportunity to come back to the community eventually. This study explored how families of juvenile lifers cope with juvenile incarceration and the evolving policy landscape and how and why families engage in system reform efforts.

Methods: The study used a case study methodology with a qualitative approach. Nine participants were recruited from a community-based mutual aid group whose members are the families of juvenile lifers. Different data sources were used to triangulate information. Each participant was interviewed twice to gather their experience interacting with the justice system and their participation in the advocacy work. In addition, field observation took place in the group activities for ten months, including monthly meetings, online training, and advocacy events. Finally, the publicly accessible documents related to participants' loved ones' cases and local reform efforts were reviewed. The inquiry was guided by the radical healing and mutual aid frameworks. Data analysis was an iterative process. Data were analyzed with deductive and inductive coding guided by Braun and Clarke's (2006) thematic analysis framework.

Results: The emergent themes include the social toxins around families of incarcerated people, the unique role of community building and the mutual aid group, and the process of radical healing as family members develop critical consciousness and engage in civic actions. Families who maintain a long-term connection with incarcerated loved ones are involved in a multifold toxin environment. They experienced marginalization and imprisonment by association, which includes the emotional, economic, and social strains as they are indirectly involved in the criminal justice system. In addition, their traditional social networks failed in supporting them in such situations. The community-based group for families of incarcerated children provided a space for this population to gain resources, the means to pay visits in person, and take actions to advocate for their loved ones. As a group, families were able to identify how the justice system established barriers purposefully in preventing incarcerated people from receiving social support and the steps they can take to make a political change. As a result, families gain power and control of their life situations and acquire tools to resist systematic oppression.

Conclusions: This study highlighted the long-term impact of the justice system involvement on families of individuals serving JLOWP. It identified the role of community organizing and mutual aid groups for a marginalized population and discussed mutual aid groups as a potential intervention. The study results emphasized the importance of directly impacted individuals to lead social justice efforts.