On May 20, Boston College Law School clinical professor Francine Sherman ’80 will be honored by Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps with the Embracing the Legacy Award for her groundbreaking work on juvenile justice issues. The award ceremony and dinner will be held at the JFK Library in Boston.
“Fran Sherman has been a champion of juvenile justice reform for more than 25 years and has had an impact across the entire nation, including Capitol Hill,” says Ed Kelley, CEO of RFK Children’s Action Corps. “Clearly one of the most talented in her field, she has passionately and consistently highlighted and advocated for better services and understanding of young women in the system.”
Sherman, who founded and has taught BC Law’s Juvenile Rights Advocacy Program for over 20 years, co-authored the 2015 study Gender Injustice: System-Level Juvenile Justice Reforms for Girls with Annie Balck ’05, one of her former students. The report details how the nation’s juvenile justice system locks up traumatized girls who are victims of sexual and other violence, and how this approach criminalizes girls and pushes them into systems that are further traumatizing and do not support their healthy development.
Although juvenile justice reform has led to a decline in the overall number of youth being held in detention systems, girls ages 13 to 18 are now making up a larger share of the juvenile justice population at every stage of the process.
Massachusetts is an exception to this trend. “The state has been a leader in this area, and as a result we have one of the lowest incarceration rate of females in the country,” Sherman said. “The state takes a developmental approach and tries to find other programs and services for the girls to help them…I’m deeply honored to be receiving this award. It shows people are thinking about the issue.”
Sherman is preparing to launch another report later this year based on her findings from interviews with 20 adult women from across the country who grew up in the juvenile justice system. The women have enormous strengths and are working hard to lead meaningful adult lives while facing obstacles in trying to recover from trauma, sometimes resulting in re-incarceration, unemployment, homelessness, illness, poverty, and violent relationships.
After the report is released, Sherman hopes to turn the oral histories and portraits into a book. “The work will illustrate qualities and struggles we all share,” Sherman says. “The experience of development and becoming an adult is universal, a connection that the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy made naturally.”
Sherman is also an aspiring photographer who co-founded Artistic Noise, a Boston- and New York-based arts and entrepreneurship program for youth involved in the juvenile justice system. The program provides an opportunity for young people to express themselves and document their experiences using the visual arts while learning valuable life, job, and leadership skills.
Sherman has spoken before Congress and at the White House, and served on a US Department of Justice National Advisory Committee. She advises foundations and systems on how to reduce detention and incarceration and improve systems for girls and young women.
“One of my biggest areas of concern for young women who have been incarcerated is what happens when they turn 18,” says Sherman. “They need ongoing support such as housing, jobs, and community. Being an adult—in the best of circumstances—is hard enough. Add in the challenges these women face, and it’s overwhelming. Massachusetts offers some support for these women when they become adults, but much more is needed. There needs to be nationwide reform to end bad practices and instead offer solutions to support girls and young women.”
ABOUT THE ROBERT F. KENNEDY CHILDREN’S ACTION CORPS’ EMBRACING THE LEGACY AWARD
The Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps’ Embracing the Legacy Award celebrates the legacy of Robert F. Kennedy and the work of the organization founded to carry out his principles of social justice for the poor and disadvantaged. Through its annual Embracing the Legacy event, the agency raises money to support some of Massachusetts’ most vulnerable youth and families, giving them a second chance for a better life. The agency, which is celebrating 47 years of service, is a national leader in developing and implementing model, successful, child welfare and juvenile justice programs.
During the May 20 event, Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III and his brother Matt Kennedy, RFK Children’s Action Corps’ board members, will reflect on their late grandfather’s legacy and the lasting contributions he made toward protecting society’s most vulnerable children and families.
Past honorees include activists Marian Wright Edelman and Peter Edelman, Olympic Gold Medalist Rafer Johnson, Jeannette Pai-Espinosa of The National Crittenton Foundation, former running back Gayle Sayers, educator Jonathan Kozol, Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp, Casey Family Program’s Dr. William Bell, and former Boston Red Sox Pitcher Tim Wakefield.