Caregiver Perspectives on Navigating the Juvenile Justice System: Peer Navigators Could Help Improve Caregiver Engagement and System Personnel Partnerships

Findings from JCOIN’s Indiana University School of Medicine Clinical Research Center

Family hands all holding a paper cutout.


Caregiver engagement is crucial in youth development and has shown to be a core component in improving service delivery and outcomes among youth involved in the juvenile justice (JJ) system. In fact, prior research has shown that caregiver engagement and involvement can impact decisions in juvenile cases by law enforcement and court officials. Despite the effectiveness, caregiver-centered approaches have not been widely adopted across the JJ system. Caregivers report struggling to navigate the JJ system and assist the youth through the court system largely due to limited familiarity with the system, burdensome probation requirements, and structural inequities.

To better understand these challenges, researchers from JCOIN’s Clinical Research Center based at the Indiana University School of Medicine conducted a study to examine the facilitators and barriers to establishing or improving partnerships between caregivers and JJ system personnel. The study also examined the caregiver and JJ personnel perspectives on family involvement across multiple points of the JJ system (from initial arrest/intake, court, and probation) to inform the development and utility of a caregiver navigator or peer-based program to improve caregiver engagement and provide social, informational, and emotional support. The researchers conducted 27 semi-structured interviews: 15 with caregivers of youth involved in JJ, seven with JJ personnel, and five with members of an existing JJ family advisory board.  


The study’s findings include:

  • Overall, caregivers expressed feelings of being judged, blamed, punished for their children’s actions, and undervalued throughout the process as they were left voiceless and with no appropriate resources.
  • Both caregivers and JJ personnel expressed that experiences depended on the point of contact with the system. Caregivers characterized intake and the initial arrest by frustration, stress, and surprise. The court process made the caregivers feel voiceless and judged for their child’s behavior and was predominantly a negative experience. While some caregivers reported a positive experience with probation, others felt punished and blamed for their child’s actions.
  • The majority of caregivers and JJ personnel emphasized a parent peer-navigation program could provide all aspects of social support, raise caregiver self-efficacy, and lower caregiver’s feelings of confusion. However, some caregivers and JJ personnel cautioned that a peer-navigation program may be perceived as a burden or another court requirement.
  • Other themes include a need for better communication between caregivers and JJ personnel and structural barriers to complying with system requirements, such as a lack of resources and transportation.

These findings stress the need to continue to improve positive partnerships between caregivers and JJ personnel, especially as JJ-involved youth move through the system. The findings also show endorsement of peer-navigator programs among both caregivers and JJ personnel. By utilizing peers who have first-hand knowledge of the JJ system, navigator programs could help address caregivers' feelings of confusion and uncertainty with navigating through the JJ system and provide additional emotional support, while ultimately increasing caregiver engagement. While previous research supports the importance of peer navigation, the researchers note that these programs may be more beneficial when implemented earlier and during specific stages of the JJ system.


This study was published in Health & Justice and was led by researchers part of JCOIN’s Clinical Research Center based at the Indiana University School of Medicine, including Drs. Matthew Aalsma (PI), Allyson Dir (first author), Casey Pederson, Shin Khazvand, Katie Schwartz, and Sarah Wiehe.

Read the journal article

This summary is based on the findings from the following publication:

Dir, A. L., Pederson, C., Khazvand, S., Schwartz, K., Wiehe, S. E., & Aalsma, M. C. (2023). Caregiver and juvenile justice personnel perspectives on challenges and importance of caregiver engagement and the potential utility of a peer navigator program in the juvenile justice system. Health & Justice, 11(1), 30.