Recently, we spoke with Samantha Wiggins, who is a youth member of the Maryland’s Juvenile Justice State Advisory Group. She is a 2016-2017 fellow in NJJN's Youth Justice Leadership Institute (YJLI), 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-prepared advocates and organizers who reflect the communities most affected by juvenile justice system practices and policies.
Ms. Wiggins graduated from Temple University in 2012 with a degree in political science and philosophy, and a certificate in political economics. She earned her juris doctor degree from Georgetown University Law Center. While at Georgetown, she taught students about the law in the Street Law Clinic. In 2014, she became a Delaney Public Policy Scholar. She believes that protecting the rights of children and providing effective avenues for youth voice are the best ways to ensure a brighter future for youth in the justice system.
Can you tell us about your advocacy project?
My project has evolved over time, but I’m working on developing a curriculum for kids detained in secure facilities here in Maryland to help them learn to advocate for themselves. I think a lot of decisions are made over the heads of kids in the system, and they don’t have as much say as they should in what happens to them while they’re in it.
Can you say more about that?
Based on my experiences, I think a lot of decisions are made about and for the youth by people who work closely with them. The therapists and lawyers and other professionals who assess youth and make notes about what they think is in the best interest of the child often don’t include what the child is actually saying. When I was working in juvenile court throughout law school, youth voice was the main thing missing on everybody’s side: social workers, security, everyone was missing what the kids were saying, no one was listening. And at the policy level, they’d say, “Okay, let’s get a couple of kids’ testimony,” and then that would be it.
In one case I was involved with, a kid was stealing bikes. Part of the reason was that his parents weren’t working. And yet it wasn’t noted in his plan that the parents needed work. So once he was released, he went back and got arrested again for stealing … but no one considered that his parents needed help finding jobs!
How will your project address this?
Well, I’ve been doing research on youth voice projects, but I haven’t found a model that exactly meets what I’m trying to do. My plan is to get permission from the directors of the girls’ facility and one all-boys’ facility here in Maryland where I can use the advocacy curriculum I’m developing. I’d meet every other week with the youth for six sessions. Ideally, I want to meet with the same group of kids throughout all six sessions. Toward the end, I will ask them to do an advocacy project based on what they’ve learned – it could be a presentation to the facility staff about their experience, or letters to judges, legislators, or stakeholders in the state Department of Juvenile Services – or letters to all three. Their letters would be focused on their experiences, what they think could be done better in the system from their perspective, and how to include youth voice in the process.
My goal is for the youth to see how important is to advocate for yourself and how to do it properly. I also hope that by being in the facility, the facility staff and directors see the importance of including youth voice in their programs, and we can begin to change the culture of these facilities one step at a time.