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Meet the Fellows: Kathy Wright

September 15, 2015
Zoe Schein























Recently, we spoke with Kathy Wright, Executive Director of the New Jersey Parents’ Caucus. Kathy is a fellow in NJJN's 
Youth Justice Leadership Institute, a year-long program that aims to create a more effective foundation for the juvenile justice reform movement by developing a strong base of well-trained and well-prepared advocates and organizers who reflect the communities most affected by juvenile justice system practices and policies.

What motivates you to work in youth justice reform?

Initially what drove me to this work was the fact that my son became involved in the juvenile justice system at the age of sixteen. I was already involved in mental health reform in our state, and I was amazed at the lack of communication between the juvenile justice system professionals and me and my husband as his parents. I was surprised at the lack of communication, the fact that there were really no directions... there was nothing. It’s probably one of the most emotional times in a parent’s life, if their child is arrested. With no sort of direction, no answers, it really was just…horrific. You’re expected to make decisions quickly and there really is no place where you can go to help you understand the process: what’s expected of me? What are my responsibilities? What are my rights?  What are my child’s rights, particularly given that he is involved in the mental health and special education systems in our state? No one was sharing any information about that. That’s what brought me to the work, and then to developing the “Navigating the Juvenile Justice System:  A Family Guide.”

Watching the treatment of my son, intervening on his behalf and also on behalf of other kids who were system-involved, and listening to other parents’ stories… I didn’t want any other parent or family member to go through what I’d gone through, especially knowing that I was an advocate already, and other parents might not have that foundation. That’s what brought me to the work.

Now my son is 21. Recently, he told me, “Ma, you don’t have to do this anymore, I’m okay!” But once I got involved in the work, I became aware of the injustices that plague our juvenile justice system. Eight years ago, I never knew that kids could be waived into the adult system.  I never knew that the vast majority of these kids are kids of color. I never knew about the mental health-to-prison pipeline. That is what has kept me in the work. Digging into those issues, I thought, “Okay, we’re waiving these kids, and 90% of them look like me. The vast majority have mental health challenges which are unmet in their community. A good percentage are involved in special education, and many are involved in child welfare.” It just presented itself. It’s institutional racism at its worst. That’s why I’ve continued to stay involved in the work.  
 

Fellows in the Institute are expected to complete a year-long advocacy project. Can you tell me about your project?

The core of my advocacy project was really to create reform while ensuring that youth and family members have an active voice and are involved at all levels of decision-making. Not everything I ended up doing was in my original plan, but it strengthened our reform efforts and was a direct response to the needs of youth, parents, and family members.

The idea for my project began around building the Youth Justice Initiative, which is the first youth- and family-driven initiative in New Jersey that seeks to reform the juvenile justice system by ending the incarceration of youth in the adult system, ending solitary for youth in all justice systems, and ending racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system with the goal of ultimately improving outcomes for system-involved youth and their families. My work on that project also led me to develop the Youth Coalition, which wasn’t in my original plan, as well as our legal services clinic, and publication of our data brief: “The Incarceration of Children & Youth in New Jersey’s Adult Prison System.”

We now have 34 youth coalition members, 20 of whom were waived to the adult system and are incarcerated. Coalition members have met with legislators in both New Jersey and D.C., written comments to pending bills and are very active in the juvenile justice arena. We were able to secure three volunteer attorneys who work pro bono for our legal clinic. They make prison visits with our advocates, provide legal representation for youth and their families; they even provide support to youths’ existing attorneys if they already have one. So if a youth has a public defender, for example, who may not be able to get all of the pertinent background information for the case, the attorneys from our clinic work with the youth’s attorney to compile that information so the judge has a better understanding of who this kid is.

 

Why do you think the Youth Justice Leadership Institute is important—both on a movement level and on a personal level?

Well… first, I’ll say this: for advocacy organizations that are truly family- and youth-driven, much of it is personal. It’s a movement, but a movement driven by people who are most impacted.  When you’re a family- and youth-driven organization, that’s the difference. And I think that’s a good thing, particularly as we partner with attorneys and other advocacy groups to support the work.

As for the Institute, I am quite sure that [the New Jersey Parents’ Caucus] would not be as far along in our reform efforts had it not been for the Institute. I think that the Institute is an integral part of the juvenile justice reform movement across the country. For us in New Jersey, NJJN and the Leadership Institute have been my go-to. I have Youth Coalition members and staff reaching out to NJJN staff and other fellows in the Institute and participating in NJJN’s meetings and events. In New Jersey, most folks aren’t talking so much about youth and family driven work within the context of juvenile justice reform. So for us, the Institute is absolutely necessary. So much work could not have happened had we not had that support. It’s really been amazing.

On the more personal side of things, it’s nice to be accepted for your work. To be valued for your work. It’s so easy for people to dismiss the work we do, especially when you’re working with youth and families. Sometimes our message and our work are dismissed because of who we are. But I didn’t feel that way in the Institute or at NJJN in general. We felt valued, and that’s huge.

 

What do you do when you’re not working on youth justice reform?

Well, in January 2016, I hope to be in a JD program on a part-time basis. I believe that kids should be held responsible for their behavior in an appropriate manner indicative of their adolescence, but the powers that be need to be held responsible as well. If I’m in my community and I find that there’s a kid who’s been kept in his room for 23 hours with one hour out, for 120 days consecutively, no education, no access to counseling, no nothing, I’m calling child welfare, because that child is clearly being abused and neglected. But when the state does the same thing—somehow it’s alright? I don’t understand that. That’s why I want my JD.

Beyond that, I also advocate for children’s mental health reform, am active in our American Legion Auxiliary Unit and review grants for the federal government. I also love to read, spend time with my family and go camping in the Poconos. 

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