“I think it’s important for us as a society to remember that the youth within juvenile justice systems are, most of the time, youths who simply haven’t had the right mentors and supporters around them because of circumstances beyond their control.” ~ Q’orianka Kilcher
I am worried about the way we treat children in trouble.
This is not a new feeling or experience for me. But it has intensified. It’s not new because I have been struggling with the system which incarcerates warehouses, punishes and abuses kids since 1973. It has intensified because, despite domestic progress made over the past 45 years, recent treatment of children rounded up and separated from their parents at our southern border set off alarms that cannot be ignored. They, like approximately 50,000 children in the United States are incarcerated.
This number represents one of the highest rates of juvenile detention in the world. Shockingly, it is also true that every state in the union allows children to be tried as adults under some circumstances, and approximately 5,000 child offenders are held in adult jails or prisons at any point in time.
We must understand that these children in our juvenile justice system and those detained at our border are always suffering from the effects of serious trauma. My worries have intensified because we are exacerbating this trauma by the way we are treating our most vulnerable.
Incarceration of Children; Harsh Conditions Which Re-traumatize
Incarceration is defined for adults as a process by which a person is forcibly taken into custody and deprived of liberty. The same definition should be recognized for kids. But we try to dress up child incarceration facilities by giving them ambiguous names. They are rarely called prisons or jails. We know them as wilderness camps, youth centers, juvenile halls, training schools, development centers and dozens of other names. I was the executive director of one such place called Lighthouse Care Center. The pleasant name obscured the fact that within our cottages, many of the most abusive elements of adult incarceration were going on every day.
The 12 to 17 year old girls were committed to indefinite lengths of stay with us by the Department of Corrections. Very little of our camp-like atmosphere resembled the guiding beam of a lighthouse to the kids who lived there. Counselors were more like gatekeepers who kept score of behavioral infractions which lengthened the amount of time the girls would be living there. The kids were regularly restrained for aggressive behavior. They had no freedom to choose any personal or community activity. There was very little compassion or care at Lighthouse Care. I don’t intend to single out that one juvenile facility. My work within the prison system informed me that all of them were about the same.
Harsh conditions, or policies and procedures within places of confinement for troubled children hinder normal child development, traumatize children, worsen physical and emotional disabilities and cause a lifetime of health problems. Too many kids are incarcerated in solitary confinement for 22-24 hours per day. Imagine what it must be like for a child locked up alone in a small empty room for days, weeks, or even months. This is exactly what is happening in every community. Solitary confinement can cause permanent psychological damage and may lead to self-harm, schizophrenia, psychotic disorders, and suicide. Studies suggest that youth of color, LGBTQI kids, and those with disabilities are more likely to be placed in solitary confinement “for their own protection,” or because the facility lacks appropriate services or accommodations.
Strip searches likewise are traumatic, degrading, and humiliating. Children, especially those who have been sexually abused, can be re-traumatized by strip searches. They often feel like their perpetrator is violating them all over again by these searches. Although federal law prohibits sexual violence against incarcerated kids, children still remain at risk of sexual assault in juvenile facilities.
Incarcerated kids are also subject to shackles, pepper sprays and sleep on nothing more than a lightly padded concrete slabs. These abusive practices cause physical injuries, emotional trauma, psychological damage, and interrupt healthy development. Children in these facilities face physical and sexual violence at the hands of adult employees charged with their care and by other children. This compounds the trauma imposed by their isolation and separation from families, friends and schools. Furthermore, few of the institutions provide quality education services or access to mental health care. Under these cruel and harsh conditions, a system which was designed to habilitate children and provide them second chances, causes more harm than good and does little to protect our communities.
Perhaps the most startling indictment among the many discussed above is this; The United States is the only country in the world that sentences people to die in prison for offenses committed while under the age of 18.
The Child and Adolescent Brain; Understanding Diminished Reasoning or “Why Teenagers Act Crazy”
Brain-science research was cited by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in the 2005 ruling (Roper v. Simmons) which banned capital punishment for crimes that were committed when a defendant was under the age of 18. The Court ruled that “standards of decency” had evolved to recognize that a juvenile’s “lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility” distinguished his crimes from those of an adult. The ruling was based on research showing that the brain is still developing during adolescence, making young people especially vulnerable to impulsive behaviors.
Despite the common sense stand of the Supreme Court, forty-four states and the District of Columbia continue to regard children as young as 14 years of age as mature enough to be held just as responsible as adults in the criminal court. They virtually ignore what is known about child and adolescent brain development and give little support or full consideration of age-appropriate services and supports. Governors and legislatures still operate within the tough-on-crime framework that led to the rise in the misguided imposition of life without parole on so many juveniles based on the false notion that they were “superpredators.”
These are some of the most important things to know about current findings in adolescent neuroscience:
- During adolescence, the brain begins its final stages of maturation and continues to rapidly develop well into a person’s early 20s, concluding around the age of 25.5
- The prefrontal cortex, which governs the “executive functions” of reasoning, advanced thought and impulse control, is the final area of the human brain to mature
- Adolescents generally seek greater risks for various social, emotional and physical reasons, including changes in the brain’s neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, which influence memory, concentration, problem-solving and other mental functions. Dopamine is not yet at its most effective level in adolescence
- Adolescents commonly experience “reward-deficiency syndrome,” which means they are no longer stimulated by activities that thrilled them as younger children. Thus, they often engage in activities of greater risk and higher stimulation in efforts to achieve similar levels of excitement
- Adolescents must rely heavily on the parts of the brain that house the emotional centers when making decisions, because the frontal regions of their brains are not fully developed
Scientists and clinicians interested in the practical application of neuroscience have created a substantive body of work that should inform juvenile justice policy. The MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice established and expanded the knowledge base on adolescents and crime, and dissemination of that knowledge to juvenile justice practitioners and policy-makers has played a critical role in policy change.
Organizations like the National Conference of State Legislatures have summarized research for application to law, such as “bright line” age limits. Nonprofit groups such as the Juvenile Law Center use brain science research to produce recommendations for the improvement of the juvenile justice system. Models for Change, a multi-state initiative relying on a network of court officials, legal advocates, and researchers, produces research-based tools and techniques to make juvenile justice systems more fair, effective, rational, and developmentally appropriate.
Other scientific groups, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, are examining juvenile justice through their existing brain science lens. And the National Academy of Science’s National Research Council recent report, Reforming Juvenile Justice, organizes all recent research to promote a developmental agenda for juvenile justice in the future.
Child/Adolescent neuroscience research confirms that we have no business treating children and adolescents the way we do under the current Juvenile Justice model. The distinction between youth and adults is not simply one of age. Our brains operate differently. Our bodies operate differently. And when trauma has shaped early childhood behavior there is no way that we can expect good judgement, impulse control or predictable responses to consequences.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Trauma Informed Care (TIC) for Juvenile Offenders
I recently wrote a column on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) for ChaplainUSA. To summarize it I would re-iterate that decades of research have solidified the link between childhood trauma and poor outcomes later in life. The number of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) determines the risk for a wide range of health problems including heart disease, chronic bronchitis or emphysema, diabetes, severe obesity, substance abuse, suicide attempts, cancers of all kinds and early death. The more ACEs a person has, the higher their risk for chronic disease and a shorter than average lifespan.
It has also been shown that ACEs result in a range of behaviors punishable by the law. According to figures from the National Institute of Justice, abuse or neglect in childhood raised the chances of kids being arrested by 59 percent. The likelihood of criminal behavior in adulthood increased by 28 percent and violent crime by 30 percent, according to another study cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kids in the juvenile justice system have often have been exposed to multiple types of victimization and other childhood adversities. In total, this more than doubles the number of traumatized youth in juvenile justice programs (67 to 75 percent) who need effective services in order to recover from Childhood PTSD and a wide range of related emotional, developmental, academic and behavioral problems such as substance use, attention deficit, oppositional-defiant, sleep and eating disorders, suicidality self-harm, exploitation and sexual trafficking.
These stark facts have led to an international call to action in the past decade for juvenile justice systems to become trauma-informed. The 2012 report of the U.S. Attorney General’s Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence identified nine practical steps based on the experience of experts in law enforcement, the judiciary, juvenile justice services, child protective services, racial and ethnic disparities, and traumatic stress. This was done under the leadership of Robert Listenbee, the administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention:
- Make trauma-informed (Aces) screening, assessment and care the standard in juvenile justice services.
- Abandon juvenile justice correctional practices that traumatize children and further reduce their opportunities to become productive members of society.
- Provide juvenile justice services appropriate to children’s ethnocultural background that are based on an assessment of each violence-exposed child’s individual needs.
- Provide care and services to address the special circumstances and needs of girls.
- Provide care and services to address the special circumstances and needs of LGBTQ (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transsexual/questioning) youth.
- Develop and implement policies in every school system across the country that aim to keep children in school rather than relying on policies that lead to suspension and expulsion and ultimately drive children into the juvenile justice system.
- Guarantee that all violence-exposed children accused of a crime have legal representation.
- Help, do not punish, child victims of sex trafficking.
- Whenever possible, prosecute young offenders in the juvenile justice system instead of transferring their cases to adult courts.
Nadine Burke Harris, CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness recently reported that “Many of the kids who end up in the juvenile justice system, the vast majority of them have been exposed to high doses of adversity. Screening is the key to prevention, not just for illness but for jail time, too. We’re looking at it from a health standpoint, but we know for a fact that if we’re screening for ACEs and doing effective intervention, it’s going to impact justice outcomes.”
The good news is that Juvenile jails are adopting ACE and trauma-informed practices. Jane Halladay, of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network has been working to disseminate best practices in partnership with the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, says the political and funding climate for trauma-informed juvenile justice work has brightened in recent years. “It’s now infiltrating the federal mandates, or at least it’s becoming part of the language,” she says. “There are more strategies and practices available. There’s also a really long way to go.”
It seems obvious to me that using ACEs and TICs will bring about changes that will forever change the broken juvenile justice system.
The Movement to Change Juvenile Law and the Treatment of Kids in Trouble
“There are no monsters, villains, or bad guys. There are only folks who carry unspeakable pain.” ~ Gregory Boyle
Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, is a leader in reforming the way we look at and treat both kids and adults who have been incarcerated. He asks us to refrain from an us versus them attitude. The successful results of his work have commanded the attention of people across the country. He simply does not recognize good and evil. Instead, he offers unconditional love and compassion to those who have suffered through pain few of us can imagine. The community, not an institution of confinement, is the vehicle that will bring healing to kids in trouble.
A report by Wendy Sawyer called “Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie” addresses the grim statistics and facts surrounding the juvenile incarceration problem. She detailed some action steps that we can encourage legislators to take in addressing the issues she discussed in her study:
- Updating laws to reflect our current understanding of brain development and criminal behavior over the life course, such as raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction and ending the prosecution of youth as adults;
- Removing all youth from adult jails and prisons;
- Shifting youth away from confinement and investing in non-residential community-based programs;
- Limiting pretrial detention and youth confinement to the very few who, if released, would pose a clear risk to public safety;
- Eliminating detention or residential placement for technical violations of probation and diverting status offenses away from the juvenile justice system;
- Strengthening and reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act to promote alternatives to youth incarceration and support critical juvenile justice system improvements.
Juvenile Law Center describes itself as one of the leading advocates for the abolition of solitary confinement and other harmful conditions that youth face in the justice system. Juvenile Law Center’s work focuses on: eliminating solitary confinement, strip searches, and the use of excessive force against kids; keeping kids safe from harm — whether from facility staff, other youth, or themselves; ensuring kids have developmentally appropriate care, treatment and programming; fair treatment, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, or disability status; and reducing the over-incarceration of youth and promoting alternatives to incarceration.
I am currently associated with innovative community leaders who drive the Shelby County, (Memphis) Tennessee Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative. which was designed to support the Annie E Casey Foundation’s vision that all youth involved in the juvenile justice system have opportunities to develop into healthy, productive adults. Shelby County has drastically reduced the number of youth admitted to detention. It is also actively addressing the gross racial disparity issue with incarcerated kids of color who are five times more likely to be jailed than white kids.
Where to Turn for Help
There are more organizations out there advocating in the public area for reform. Among them is the The Southern Poverty Law Center which recently told the story of Tyler Haire who was 16 when he was locked up. The boy spent 1,266 days waiting in a Pittsboro, Mississippi jail awaiting a mental health evaluation. SPLC informs us rightly that the system has let him (and us) down. Another organization, The John Howard Association of Illinois actively watches over the five juvenile prisons in the state. It reports that the average annual cost for keeping a child in the state’s facilities is $141,428. Can you imagine what could be done to help a traumatized child with that kind of money? We have already discovered the ways to affect healing changes necessary to help our kids in trouble. The time for action is now. Our children are waiting.
Robert Kenneth Jones
Robert Kenneth Jones is an innovator in the treatment of addiction and childhood abuse.
In a career spanning over four decades, his work helping people recover from childhood abuse and addiction has earned him the respect of his peers.
His blog, An Elephant for Breakfast, testifies to the power of the human spirit to overcome the worst of life’s difficulties. We encourage you to visit and share this rich source of healing, inspiration and meditation.
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