A social work senior strives to change juvenile detention facilities

Brooke Bernard, BSW ’19, is committed to change the juvenile justice system for the better. As a social work major with a certificate in forensic science from the College of Natural Sciences, Bernard has researched restorative justice, the school-to-prison pipeline, police surveillance in low-income neighborhoods and the culture of juvenile facilities. She’s in the BSW Honors Program, working with professor Rowena Fong on a thesis that seeks to identify alternatives to solitary confinement as punishment for juvenile offenders.

“The cells are so small, there’s no room to even exercise, youth start examining their hands and hallucinating,” she said. “I read an article about a child who basically created a video game with his hands because he was so bored from isolation. His fingers became characters. Youth are completely isolated and have to receive meals through a slot in a door. It saddens me. Isolation has a huge impact on social development.”

AUSTIN, TEXAS. Nov. 1, 2019. Professor Rowena Fong and BSW Honor's student Brooke Bernard, MSSW '19. Photo by Montinique Monroe

Professor Rowena Fong meets with BSW Honor’s student Brooke Bernard, MSSW ’19, on Nov. 1, 2019. Photo by Montinique Monroe


Bernard traces her interest in juvenile justice back to her sophomore year, when she took a social work course called Foundations of Social Justice. During that time, her mother began working in a county jail as a guard. This allowed Bernard to combine her classroom experience with her mother’s real life interactions with inmates and it shaped her understanding of the prison system. It gave both Bernard and her mother a sense of hope.

Thinking back to high school, Bernard said she realizes how socio-economic factors put youth at-risk of entering the juvenile justice system. Many of her peers came from disadvantaged backgrounds, and she often witnessed school officials mistreat and stigmatize them. They were penalized for situations they couldn’t control such as arriving late to school, consecutive absences and minor disruptions – all things Bernard believes should’ve been mediated by a school social worker.

“Most of the time their interactions were with the teachers who dismissed them, a principal and a police officer,” Bernard said. “To combat this, it’s important for youth to feel connected to their learning environments and for officials to understand students are affected by things such as poverty, disabilities, physical environments, adverse childhood experiences, familial abuse, drugs and death of loved ones.”

As a student, Bernard is not only researching juvenile justice topics but also trying to make a direct, positive impact in the field. She volunteers at Giddings State School, a maximum security juvenile facility for youth who’ve committed violent crimes such as murder and aggravated robbery. She began volunteering at the facility through Austin Bat Cave (ABC), a nonprofit that provides literacy, storytelling and writing workshops for youth.

Austin Bat Cave’s program director Heather Jones (MSSW ‘15) met Bernard through connections in the restorative justice community. She said having a social work student like Bernard lead workshops is vital to the program’s success.

“Brooke has been an amazing part of the Giddings program,” Jones said. “Having someone else with restorative justice knowledge is so valuable. She’s deeply caring about the students and a really talented social worker.”

As an ABC facilitator at Giddings, Bernard leads writing workshops for a diverse group of male teenagers. The third time she met with them, Bernard asked them to pitch their favorite songs to analyze. They selected Pride by rapper Kevin Gates. During the workshop, they listened to the lyrics, discussed underlying meanings of the song and how it applies to their lives. Then they began writing. The exercise brought out myriad emotions for everyone.

“I went home and cried because it was my first time interacting with youth behind bars and it was a lot,” she said. “They were so real and open. You make things a reality when you speak it out loud. You can think about it all day but when you actually speak it out, it’s a whole different thing.”

As Bernard prepares for graduation on December 7th, she’s considering various career and academic paths. No matter which direction she takes after graduation, she plans to make her mark on the juvenile justice system.

“I hope to integrate programs and techniques into both the educational system and juvenile facilities that will contribute to the overall well-being of youth,” Bernard said.

By Montinique Monroe. Published November 22, 2019.