As physicians, we are often on the front lines of tragedies such as those in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas recently and in Florida in June. During these troubling times and two contentious national conventions, we are beginning to wonder what changes are in store for our profession and our patients.
As first responders, we are intimately aware of what our patients endure after being victims of violence, after witnessing violence or struggling through the stressors of living in communities that are under-resourced, oversurveilled and overcriminalized. We also believe that, as a group, doctors have a responsibility and the collective power to stand united in support of reforms that affect the overall physical, mental and behavioral health of our patients.
Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform Inc. (PfCRJ) was established in May 2015 to advocate for reforms that eliminate the damaging health consequences that can result from negative interactions with the criminal justice system. Through our medical practice, we have all seen the myriad ways criminal justice system involvement leads to detrimental health outcomes. This is especially true for one of our most vulnerable patient populations — adolescents.
On any given night in America, more than 5,000 children are held in adult jails and prisons. Youth offenders held in adult prisons receive the lowest rate of supportive and therapeutic services in the criminal justice system despite the fact that as many as 70 percent of them have a diagnosable mental health disorder.
Health and criminal justice research irrefutably demonstrates that youth housed in adult jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than youth housed in juvenile detention facilities. They are also extremely vulnerable to being sexually and physically assaulted, or placed in isolation often as a misguided attempt to protect them from the adult inmate population.
This is a clearly delineated issue where psychological, sociological, criminological and medical evidence agree on a basic fact that can inform and guide appropriate criminal justice reform: There are neurobiological differences between adolescent and adult brains. Our medical literature clearly demonstrates that adolescent brains are neurobiologically and developmentally different from those of adults. Impulsive decision-making, increased risk-taking and decreased appreciation for long-term consequences of behaviors are the direct result of the neurobiological architecture and functioning of the adolescent brain.
It is for these reasons that youth, by law, are prohibited from taking on major adult responsibilities such as voting, jury duty and military service. It naturally follows that if adolescent brains are not yet ready for major adult responsibilities, then we should not hold adolescents to an adult standard of accountability when involved with the criminal justice system.
Critics of physician advocacy to end the practice of trying youth as adults will argue that some crimes are so violent and heinous that adolescents need to be punished in the adult system. Their idea is that only the most severe punishment, no matter how developmentally inappropriate, will curb this behavior and protect society from these dangerous adolescents.
This idea is analogous to parents believing that if timeouts are not working to curb their child’s behavior, placing the child in timeout with an adult who is a child molester or murderer will be more successful in getting their child to stop the identified behavior. As physicians or even as rational adults, we would never support that type of decision from parents, nor should we accept it from the criminal justice system. Additionally, it is important to note that the nature of the crime does not change the underlying biological differences in the adolescent and the adult brain.
Finally, both the medical literature and criminal justice studies suggest that counseling and therapy, followed by multiple coordinated services and skill-building programs, have the largest positive effects on juvenile recidivism. In fact, most studies show that disciplinary interventions such as incarceration for adolescents lead to increased recidivism. In a nutshell, incarcerating adolescents is at best ineffective and at worst is functioning not as a deterrent, but rather as a reinforcer of criminal behavior.
Regardless of political affiliation, the serious, long-term negative health consequences experienced by our adolescent patients as a result of being treated as adults in the criminal justice system make it our duty as physicians to take a leadership role in criminal justice reform. And so we end with the same question we started with: Presidential candidates: Will your platform call to end the prosecution of children in the adult criminal justice system?
Osvaldo Gaytan, M.D., Ph.D., is director of Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform’s Juvenile Justice Taskforce and a physician with specialties in child and adolescent psychiatry, neuropharmacology and early childhood trauma.
Nzinga Harrison, M.D., is co-founder of Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform and a physician with specialties in adult psychiatry and addiction medicine.
Edjah Nduom, M.D., is the founder of Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform and a physician with specialties in neurosurgical oncology and clinical research.
This spring, the federal Administration for Children and Families released data from interviews with hundreds of homeless youth age 14-21 from across the country. Researchers reported that nearly 40% of these youth had lived in a foster care setting, and almost 44% had been in a juvenile detention center, jail, or prison. Few advocates who work with or on behalf of youth who've been involved in the juvenile justice or foster care system were likely surprised by these statistics--foster care, justice-system involvement, and homelessness are a revolving door for too many children and young people in this country.
For some youth, system involvement may be immediately followed by homelessness, for obvious reasons: a child who is taken out of a dysfunctional or abusive home may not be welcome or safely able to return to his family after "aging out" of foster care; young people with criminal records may not be able to return home due to restrictions on their families' public housing; or parents may simply be unwilling to take children back after an arrest or stay in juvenile detention. For other youth, there may be a longer trajectory of challenges and failures leading to homelessness: youth in foster care and the juvenile justice system experience educational disruption, and the "education" provided in most detention facilities is notoriously bad. These youth, for a variety of reasons, are less able to complete vocational training, internships, and other experiential learning. This lack of education and ability to obtain employment means that these young people simply can't afford to support themselves once they exit or "age out" of our public systems.
No child should ever lack safe and stable housing, but our responsibility to address and prevent homelessness is perhaps most compelling for young people who have been taken from their own families and placed into the custody of the state. When the child welfare or juvenile justice system removes children from their homes due to parental abuse or neglect, or because of illegal acts committed by youth themselves, it takes on an obligation to meet at least their most basic needs. Yet due to an appalling lack of transition planning and the conditions these youth experience while in state custody, foster care and juvenile court involvement have become pathways to homelessness for far too many children.
Efforts are underway to address youth homelessness; these include work by government entities, coordinated through the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and by private consortia such as A Way Home America, along with the Coalition for Juvenile Justice's own recently launched project to address this issue. These are promising initiatives with tremendous resources and expertise behind them, but they are not sufficient to end homelessness for all of our children. These efforts need to be supported by individuals and communities holding their local, state, and federal governments accountable for ending youth homelessness and calling on all child-serving agencies to come together to ensure that our children have safe and stable housing - and that they are not criminalized for being without this basic human necessity. This is particularly true for those whose lives our public systems have already disrupted. The medical adage "do no harm" must apply to these children, and we must all demand more for them.
Lisa Pilnik is Deputy Executive Director, Coalition for Juvenile Justice, and Darla Bardine, Executive Director, National Network for Youth.
This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.
LOS ANGELES — Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew grew up in the foster care system in Los Angeles, where she lived in 14 different group homes, most of which featured various levels of abuse. Her experience showed her how children, in a system built to protect them, often face life-endangering risks that often go unnoticed by the public.
Pettigrew and others have seen how cases of abuse in the foster care system can drive the children out of their group or foster homes in search of someone who can fill the painful void left in their lives by the lack of family, or any other kind of caring adult.
“At the age of 10, I met a man that said he was going to love me, care for me, everything that I wanted someone to do, because I had no one,” Pettigrew said. But “love” and “care” turned out to have harrowing strings attached. “From the age of 10 to 17, I was employed here in California, from San Diego all the way up to Washington.”
By “employed,” Pettigrew means she was sexually abused for money as a victim of child sex trafficking.
For more information, visit the JJIE Resource Hub | Dual Status Youth
“I cannot remember my 10th through 13th birthdays,” she said. “My 14th birthday I was in Las Vegas. My 15th birthday I was in San Diego. My 16th I was on a break home, coming back from Washington. And my 17th I was in juvenile hall.”
Pettigrew's recruitment out of a group home was not unique.
“Seventy percent of the kids involved [in sex trafficking] we find locally are from foster care,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell. “They are kids who didn’t have much of a chance from an early age and now are revictimized by pimps.”
The California Child Welfare Council has similar numbers for the state, reporting that 50 to 80 percent of Commercially Sexually Exploited Children — or CSEC — have had child welfare involvement.
Charity Chandler-Cole, who is now on the board of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, said she became aware of the issue of sex trafficking while living in her group home as a teenager. She watched as other children in the home would be released by staff to their pimp at night and let back into the group home hours later for a small fee. Other forms of prostitution, such as girls being used in pornographic videos, also took place, she said. All too soon, Chandler-Cole was introduced to those pimps and propositioned. She became a victim of sex trafficking.
“During my stay there, I was exploited in such a manner by the very people that were supposed to protect me,” she said. “I had no one to run to. I had nowhere to go because the system was the one violating me and so many others.”
Each year in the United States, more than 1,000 children are arrested as “child prostitutes,” even though they are not legally old enough to consent to sex. African-American children make up 59 percent of all prostitution-related arrests under the age of 18.
Los Angeles County is considered both a major hub and a transit route for sex-trafficked youth.
With all this in mind, last year the LA County Sheriff’s Department, the LA County Board of Supervisors and LA County Probation, plus the U.S. Justice Department and others launched a series of new strategies to address the disturbing problem of LA’s sex-trafficked children.
So what progress has been made?
The nature of the crime
According to McDonnell, sex-trafficking minors is a very profitable business. If a pimp has five girls operating every day, the sheriff said, he can make $600,000 to $800,000 per year.
“You sell dope once and it's gone. You can sell a person over and over again,” McDonnell said, his expression grim.
Girls are forced into horrific conditions and experiences so they can make the quota their pimps require for the day.
Prior to his election as Los Angeles County sheriff in 2014, McDonnell served as the second in command at the LA Police Department, and then the chief of the Long Beach (California) Police Department. During his time as chief in Long Beach, in particular, McDonnell saw that pimps were typically local gang members, 18 to 28 years old.
Unlike drug sales, this high-profit margin work is relatively low risk because of the internet, cellphones and the network of people involved, according to McDonnell.
Child sex trafficking isn’t an easy crime to spot, so many people still believe this is an international problem, he said. But “we found that the more we looked the more we found, very sadly.”
Sex trafficking has to occur somewhere, and often, McDonnell said, that “somewhere” is right next door, just out of sight, on the side of the road in an RV, in a motel room, hotel room or a vacant house.
Changing language to change minds
One of the problems with previous law enforcement strategies, said McDonnell and others, was the fact that victims of trafficking were those most likely to be arrested, not the traffickers or the customers who make the crime of trafficking children for sex profitable.
McDonnell and the LA County Board of Supervisors quickly embraced the strategy. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl explained at the launch of the No Such Thing campaign on Oct. 21 last year that, until very recently, she was told that arrest and incarceration were the only effective means of stabilizing commercially sexually exploited children.
“Fortunately, it’s not those experts we are listening to anymore,” Kuehl said. “Now we’re listening to the real experts, the people who have created the movement, the children themselves who have spoken and said, ‘No, it is not what we need to be locked behind bars, to be protected from exploiters and predators. That is not what we need for protection.’”
Through the insight the survivors provided, the existing approach was reformed to become victim- or child-centered.
Typically, when CSEC victims were caught in the past, they were arrested and treated as criminals because California does not have safe harbor laws, legislation that clearly states how sexually exploited children should be treated as victims, not prostitutes. This was an approach that victim advocates have opposed.
Michelle Guymon, who is in charge of providing health and mentoring services for child sex-trafficking victims as director of placement administration services for Los Angeles County Probation, said the absence of such laws can be seen in a different light with a shift in protocol.
“I think what happens when you don’t have safe harbor is that people are motivated and passionate about doing the work and you can still make things happen,” Guymon said.
Legislation is not a magical solution, she explained. In fact, some of the states with safe harbor laws continue to arrest children for prostitution.
“I’m in meetings all the time with people from some of those states that have safe harbor. They still detain kids, and they’ve learned other ways around it,” Guymon said. “What came with safe harbor is no money for resources so they’re kind of stuck and are seeing some unintended consequences by not having programs set up.”
According to Guymon, Los Angeles has started rolling out programs so that when California does pass safe harbor legislation, the funding is secured and builds on what has already been started.
The three-prong solution
Last September, the LA Sheriff’s Department was able to take a big step forward with its strategy to combat the sex trafficking of children when it received a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to fund the establishment of a multiagency Los Angeles Human Trafficking Task Force. The task force, a partnership of multiple federal, state and county agencies as well as community-based organizations, is designed to target the CSEC problem by using a three-pronged approach that is also victim-centered.
The first of the three prongs involves going after the pimps and traffickers, using appropriate laws to identify, arrest and prosecute them.
With the second prong, the LASD and the task force aims to go after the demand side, “the johns,” the classic term used for buyers. McDonnell explained that, rather than citing the johns with prostitution charges for a small fine, as was the norm, the task force aims to indict them on charges of child molestation, statutory rape or conspiracy to commit either.
“So by doing that and publicizing what we are doing, we hope to create a disincentive so that people don’t engage in this behavior,” McDonnell said. “And we knock down the demand side so that there isn’t the tremendous profit that was fueling this all along.”
With the third prong, the task force identifies the victims, not as suspects, but as kids in need of rescue from their forced prostitution.
This third prong is being newly defined through the use of the Law Enforcement First Responder Protocol for Commercially Sexually Exploited Children, a system designed to identify victims of sexual exploitation at the first point of contact. Then law enforcement works collaboratively with county agencies and community-based organizations to avoid arresting the victim and to provide him or her with the services and resources they need to escape exploitation.
The new law enforcement protocol first began to be used on Aug. 15, 2014, by the Long Beach Police Department and the Compton Sheriff’s Station.
One year before the rollout, there were 94 arrests in Long Beach and Compton, according to Guymon. Since use of the protocol began, only two arrests for child prostitution have been made in this region.
The new alternatives to arrest have allowed for the proper treatment of these victims.
“[With the new approach] law enforcement has more options and avenues for responding so they aren’t stuck with what to do,” Guymon said. “All the knowledge and training, all the things we’ve done coming together has us doing things differently.”
Because of the regional success, she said, the LA County Board of Supervisors has decided to take the plan countywide.
“This task force is an opportunity to change the terrain and create a national model in how children should never be criminalized for being subject to repeated commercial rape,” said Malika Saada Saar, former executive director of Rights4Girls. “But naming it, responding to it, as a form of child rape, is absolutely needed.”
Responders provide victims with counseling and wraparound services to get them out of the life. However, some victims were arrested for this type of crime before this program began. For them, there is still hope in the form of a unique court system.
The Star Court
The Los Angeles County Juvenile STAR Court (Succeeding Through Achievement and Resilience) is a partnership between the Los Angeles County Juvenile Court and the LA County Probation Department. It developed due to the increase in prostitution cases being filed in the delinquency courts, while some carried over to the child dependency courts too.
Under the program, minors arrested for involvement in prostitution are considered CSEC cases. This means, that even within the context of the legal process, they are viewed as victims, not criminals. The court aims to facilitate rehabilitation services for kids involved with CSEC so they are not retraumatized by court proceedings and incarceration.
STAR Court is in session once per week. It sees young women and young men who have been charged with prostitution or who have revealed involvement in prostitution after being arrested on other charges. These youths can volunteer to participate in the STAR court program during their probation so they can have access to rehabilitative and intervention services.
The court provides enhanced services and supervision for CSEC victims through a multidisciplinary team that includes the young person’s lawyer, the assistant district attorney, the assigned probation officer and advocates from community-based organizations that focus on sex-trafficked youth.
Though the original grant for this program ended in December 2014, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted in April 2015 to allocate county dollars to continue to fund the court.
“This is very noteworthy and something they need to be doing, so they found a way to make it work,” Guymon said. “It wasn’t one of those situations where the grant is over and they quit doing that program, but rather this is something that we continue to be very involved in.”
Nearly 80 percent of the girls involved with the STAR court had prior contact with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, many with experiences like that of Pettigrew and Chandler-Cole. Programs like the STAR Court provide children with the support they often lacked in their homes, and again in the foster care system, according to Guymon.
“Something we see with those children in the foster care system, and coming out of it, is that they don’t have those positive support systems in their life,” Guymon said. “Once they have access to something like this, I think that makes a big difference.”
In her experience with STAR Court and probation, Guymon has seen kids form strong relationships, something they often never had before.
As a consequence, she said, the youngsters she has worked with over the years often look to her for support and continue to text her from time to time, asking for advice, or even a ride.
“I think what is really good for those youth or young adults is that they know there’s someone to reach out to,” Guymon said.
With these types of support systems, survivors like Pettigrew are eventually able to use their experiences to help other victims and also to teach the community about this troubling issue.
Pettigrew contacts survivors to begin to form the connections that will provide the support they need to begin to recover, the way crucial people reached out to her. She says sex-trafficking victims need to learn how to communicate and connect to get on the road to recovery.
“[For me] it started with one person saying ‘Hey, I care about you enough to actually answer the phone when you call,’” she said. “It is my honor to be able to take my experience and make something out of it.”
Educating the public
Another essential element of addressing the child sex-trafficking crisis, according to Sheriff McDonnell, is the task of informing the public.
“My goal, and a big part of this, is an education campaign,” McDonnell said. “To be able to educate the public as to what they could be looking for.” If properly informed, community members can be assets for law enforcement.
“We can really get the community engaged to be helpful to us,” McDonnell said. “It will save us a tremendous amount of time, surveillance, investigation, if the people and community can call us, say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a concern about this motel or whatever,’ because it focuses our resources that are very precious as it is, and it gives us an opportunity to intercede long before we might [otherwise] be able to.”
He explained that too often, people don’t make the call that could save a child’s life.
“We hear people say, ‘I knew something was going on but … I didn’t want to bother you,’” McDonnell said. “The message is, ‘You’re not bothering us, we want to hear from you and we want to be able to go out and look into these types of things, and we want to be able to have a good outcome.’”
According to the sheriff, education on sexually trafficked children also calls for a significant shift in perception.
McDonnell and community advocacy groups say there needs to be a societywide understanding that this is happening, not only on American soil, but in our neighborhoods.
“When we think about the issue of trafficking, we think about other countries. We think about children who are brought into this country as foreign nationals and bought and sold. And all of that is true … but in many if not most of our cities, those who are being bought and sold are our children, who are bought and sold for sex,” Saada Saar said.
McDonnell echoed this sentiment: “We have young people brought up in the United States of America, where traditionally we have not seen these problems, and certainly not to the degree to which we are seeing them today.”
Advocates like Pettigrew and community organizations focused on helping stop CSEC are calling for a shift in cultural opinion, starting with changing how society labels these children.
“It’s about breaking the lens, the misconception in society, and in the community. We have to stand up against these terms, against these labels,” Pettigrew said.
Maheen Kaleem, from the organization Rights4Girls, explains why there is reluctance to view young survivors of CSEC as victims of violence: “Before we talk about institutional barriers, the biggest issue is culture and attitude. We have to shift our attitude so that we can see these girls as victims and survivors as opposed to criminals because those attitude impact how we treat them.”
LA County has launched multiple public awareness campaigns and trained thousands of county employees to identify the warning signs. But the work has only just begun, according to Kaleem, McDonnell, Guymon and others.
“Our goal is to provide help and resources to those that are out there being victimized,” McDonnell said. “Truly, it will be a work in progress. But the tone is set, [and the] message is very clear.”
Eileen Decker, the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, says a lot has been accomplished in the months since the task force launched last September.
“First, we have a group of organizations — the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the LAPD, the FBI, Homeland Security, the U.S. Attorney’s office, the DA’s office — who each individually have cared about this issue,” she said. “Now they’re working together, and that’s formidable.”
In addition, she said, “we’ve been able to do a lot of training since we received the funding. And that’s really important, so law enforcement are more equipped to understand what’s going on. That way it’s not, ‘Oh, there’s a young girl on that street corner.’ It’s about, ‘There’s a minor on a street corner who needs help,’ and there’s somebody behind that minor orchestrating what’s going on.’ These are children. The change in all these agencies to a victim-centered approach is critically important.”
But there’s much, much more still to be done, Decker said.
“More than anything,” she said, “we’ve got to protect these kids better at an earlier stage, whether it’s doing better [in] the juvenile justice system or in the foster care system. We have to have a better way of identifying the problem when it’s starting. And we have a long way to go, frankly. We need someone who’s going to say, ‘Not this kid.’ That’s a fundamental problem in that many of these young kids are in detention or in the foster care system through circumstances they didn’t create. And so there’s no one saying ‘Not this kid. I’m going to protect this kid at all costs.’
“And that’s not acceptable,” Decker said. “They’re our kids. Every one of them.”
This story is part of a series by reporters from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. The series is part of a collaboration between the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange and WitnessLA.
This story has been updated.
I grew up in a small town in South Carolina called Georgetown, 36 miles from Myrtle Beach. When I was 4 or 5 months old, my father passed, leaving my mother a single parent. It was me and my big brother, who is two years older.
Only 19, my mother struggled, working two jobs to support us. When I was 3 she got a job at the U.S. Postal Service that forced her to travel back and forth from Columbia, South Carolina to Georgetown. After a while, the two-hour drive made things even more complicated for us all.
My mother took my older brother with her to stay in Columbia and I was left to stay with my grandparents in Georgetown until my mother could get on her feet. When I was 13, my mother moved me to Columbia.
I was doing whatever I wanted to do, whenever I wanted to do it from 13 to 19. I committed crimes. I realized the effects of it one day when my mother had to take me to police headquarters. The look on her face showed disappointment and sadness.
At that point I realized that I never wanted to hurt my mother again, but that the bad choices I made already had.
When I was 19 and in my senior year of high school, I failed the exit exam that determined whether you passed or failed. I moved to Bradenton, Florida, where I worked for the Waste Management Company but was homeless for the first three to four months, staying at the Salvation Army shelter.
After being out of high school for years at a time I had no intentions of resuming my education. My only concern was to be wealthy. In June 2004, at 22, I attended Earle C. Clements Job Corps Academy in Morganfield, Kentucky.
At first Job Corps was hectic. I had never lived in a dorm environment and I was surrounded by strangers. We received an allowance every month but it was only $25.
I then went into the work-study program at a local lumber company in Morganfield to earn extra income. While in Job Corps, I also got my driver’s license, high school diploma and a carpenter helper certification.
I had no plans to resume my education; I still only wanted to be wealthy.
By November 2005, I had completed the carpentry program and achieved everything I wanted to accomplish at Job Corps. The only thing missing was the wealth I desired.
During my last weeks of Job Corps I came into contact with a guy named Dr. Roth who was a millionaire. Dr. Roth helped me realize that there were opportunities to make the kind of money I desired, but that education was the key factor and much bigger than just one skill or trade.
I then fell in love with education, not for the money, but for the opportunity to learn and evolve. I realized that out of all my siblings, there weren’t any college graduates. I was the first.
In 2014, I attended Virginia College and got my state medical assistant certification. I’m now 33, a student at Virginia College finishing a program as a network technician. In another year I’ll be studying for my bachelor’s degree as a health care IT professional.
Now I yearn to not just be a graduate, but a prime example of how change can always be an option.
I’m living proof that opportunity is always presented, but what we do with that opportunity is solely up to us.
I can definitely relate to kids incarcerated with the state Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) because of my past, when carpentry and welding were the only options presented.
I visited the DJJ in Columbia in November to help introduce the kids to programs at Virginia College that could help them once they were released.
But the officers only gave the kids two to three minutes to soak in the information. I felt it was not enough time to learn about something new. Therefore, my colleagues and I took it upon ourselves to give out gift bags with brochures.
We made the kids feel welcomed and even shook the hands of 97 percent of them, encouraging them.
But staff there confiscated for their own personal use the water bottles that we had provided from the school for the kids. I was upset because the message it sends clearly isn’t positive. It leaves the feeling there is no respect and makes the kids feel their hard work is in vain.
The kids will have a higher success rate if they are more educated about different opportunities. They made mistakes, some of them very big ones that may have cost their freedom, but they are still human and this is still America.
The kids are just kids, but we as adults should always hold ourselves to a higher standard of morals and principles. This is my testimony that proves that change is always an option and can always be used for the greater good.
Quentin Grant is a student at Virginia College, now studying to be a network technician.
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The headlines and sound bites described behavior gone wrong — a teenager in a South Carolina classroom refusing to put away her cellphone and a police officer using physical force to respond to a nonthreatening situation. He arrested her for disturbing the classroom after upending her desk and dragging her across the classroom.
The viral video of the event creates disturbing questions about cops in schools. Less media attention was paid to the student demonstration that followed — 100 students walked out of the high school in protest of the firing of the sheriff’s deputy. The principal addressed the student demonstrators and acknowledged their feelings and viewpoints and then asked them to return to class with the reminder that “Spring Valley High is all about the business of teaching and learning.”
Unfortunately, this intersection between the frustration with teenage behavior and forcible police conduct is repeated throughout the United States. In September 2014, three Houston officers forcibly detained a teenage girl who refused to give up her cellphone in class. The video shows them taking her to the floor, with one officer kneeling on her head and another kneeling on her legs, while the third cuffs her. Even more shocking are the allegations in an ACLU suit against the Kenton County (Kentucky) Sheriff’s Office in another September 2014 incident. The suit alleges that an 8-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl were handcuffed because of a school disturbance. The question is why?
School Resource Officers (SROs) were placed in schools during the 1990s as one of the responses to the perceived increase in school violence and as part of the evergreen war on drugs. Government grants were and still often are used to fund the salaries of SROs. When these funds run out, schools and municipal police departments negotiate the costs, often without considering the talents of the officers or the effects of their services.
Through this funding, schools found a way to outsource discipline and create more time for teaching and learning, but effective use of the resource requires much more than handing over the keys to the school. Community policing strategies support the informed use of police relationships in schools. When done right, officers perform good service to children and educational institutions alike.
How do we explain the kind of police behavior described above? I have no definitive answers, but I think there are areas to explore.
First is staff selection. Some officers are assigned to schools because they don’t fit into traditional police roles. The public has little ability to judge this police management responsibility because much of their information comes from TV and movie dramas instead of real world knowledge or experience.
Second, all law enforcement officers operate outside the view and presence of their supervisors. For SROs, it may take active participation by parents or advocates to call attention to problem officers. In fact, I heard a very senior commander in a very large city ask “What is an SRO?” when asked about school policing during a recent public seminar. If management doesn’t know the role of a police officer in a school, it is difficult to know how that officer is performing.
Finally, we need to understand the training for new and continuing SROs. All cops need and receive training for personal safety, firearms, restraints and crowd control. Cops in schools need more than that: adolescent brain development, mental health conditions in children, the effects of trauma on behavior and much more. Fundamentally, SROs need to learn de-escalation techniques, crisis intervention and how to use their most effective tool — talking.
What can be done to improve or lessen the use of police in schools? State advisory groups can and should collaborate with law enforcement trainings and conferences to utilize the tremendous wealth of science, knowledge and experience around youth in the justice system. Law enforcement must be invited to educational forums and community conversations. Advocates for reform must carry current knowledge to schools and stationhouses. State advisory groups on juvenile justice can advocate against outsourcing school discipline and for data-driven approaches like Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports.
I know conscientious, well-trained school officers who are key players in ending the school-to-prison pipeline, who practice restorative justice approaches to school conflict and who are leaders in decriminalizing adolescent behavior. SROs can be part of keeping all kids safer. We have to make sure they are doing that job with the right selection, temperament, training and supervision wherever there are cops in schools.
Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., is chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, and an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before retiring as chief judge of Illinois' 2nd Circuit. He is a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the state Juvenile Justice Initiative.
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A study recently published in the Archives of General Psychiatry suggests that children adversely affected by economic downturns as infants may be likelier to engage in delinquent behaviors and substance abuse when they are older adolescents and young adults.
Culling data from 1997’s National Longitudinal Study of Youth, researchers at the State University of New York’s Upstate Medical University examined a nationally representative sample of almost 9,000 young people born between 1980 and 1984. According to the study, infants exposed to a 1 percent deviation from regional unemployment rate average were found to have greater odds of using marijuana, smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol, as well as a greater likelihood than their cohorts of being arrested, affiliating with gangs or engaging in both petty or major theft.
Researchers sought to examine the potential consequences of the 1980 and 1981 to 1982 recessions on adolescents, in particular the possibility that living in an economically-disadvantaged home during the timeframe was likelier to produce a young person involved in substance abuse or criminal activity. In late 1982, the national unemployment rate stood at 10.8 percent - the highest such rate in the United States since the Great Depression.
“The macroeconomic environment during infancy can have serious long-term effects on substance use and delinquent behavior,” the report reads. “These potential long-term effects can play an important role in policy making for adolescent mental health care.”
The Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre Nov. 14 constitutes the second deadliest mass school shooting incident in American history, second only to the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre in which a single assailant murdered 32 individuals and injured 17 others.
With an estimated 26 victims dead -- 20 of whom are children -- the recent massacre is far and away the deadliest shooting incident to ever occur in one of the nation’s elementary schools.
Although mass shooting incidents in university and high school settings have occurred in the past, the Newtown, Conn. massacre serves as a rare instance of a perpetrator targeting elementary school students. But similar shootings have taken place.
- On Oct. 20, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV entered the West Nickel Mines School in Bart Township, Penn. and killed five young girls - ranging in ages from 7 to 13 - while additionally wounding five others before committing suicide.
- On Jan. 17, 1989, Patrick Purdy opened fire on a playground filled with children at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, Calif. In the three-minute rampage, Purdy killed five students and wounded an additional 29 children before turning the gun on himself.
- On Sept. 26, 1988, James William Wilson, Jr. killed two eight-year-old children and wounded seven others with a .22-caliber pistol at Oakland Elementary School in Greenwood, S.C. Wilson was sentenced to death for the attack.
- On May 20, 1988, Laurie Dann shot and killed an eight-year-old boy and wounded five other individuals in an attack that took place at Hubbard Woods Elementary School in Winnetka, Ill. She later committed suicide.
- On Feb. 24, 1984, Tyrone Mitchell killed a 10-year-old girl and wounded 11 other children when he opened fire on students exiting 49th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles. The perpetrator than killed himself with a shotgun.
- On Jan. 29, 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer injured eight children and killed two adults when she opened fire at Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, Calif. She was tried as an adult and is serving a sentence of 25 years to life at the California Institute for Women.
Historically, the single deadliest attack on elementary students to ever take place in the United States occurred in Bath Township, Mich., when Andrew Kehoe -- a school board treasurer alleged to have been spurred by foreclosure proceedings on his farm -- killed 38 children and wounded more than 50 others in a bombing that transpired on May 18, 1927.
Tabulating school-related violent deaths, the National School Safety Center reported that from 1992 until 2010, an estimated 52 homicides occurred within the nation’s elementary schools.
The Sandy Hook shooting increased that statistic by 50 percent.
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How we respond to young people when they make us mad can make or break them, emotionally and physically. Notwithstanding the studies showing genetic pre-disposition to alcoholism and other traits, we enter this world with a blank slate.
We are born with great potential to do wonderful things and experience that happiness as referenced in the Declaration of Independence. Despite our inalienable right to pursue happiness, this pursuit is thwarted for many children and young people who are traumatized at the hands of their parents or caretakers through abuse, neglect, violence and other toxic stressors. The blank slate brought into the world gets filled with some pretty ugly scribbling that makes it difficult for the rest of us to understand, including the child.
When children experience complex trauma -- violence, hurt, neglect, stress caused by a caretaker -- the brain gets re-wired. Dr. Julian Ford, a leading researcher of childhood trauma as a pathway to delinquency, describes the affect of traumatization on a child as "Dis-empowerment"-- or an "automatic shift from a brain/body that is fully able to experience what is important in life to being in survival mode."
When this occurs, the brain and personality may be disrupted and in turn the child's ability to resolve stressful situations can be compromised. This dis-empowering event or events alters the child's brain to where ordinary stress becomes a struggle to survive -- it triggers an alarm in the brain that won't turn off!
Children suffering "dis-empowerment" may "cope by resorting to indifference, defiance, or aggression as self-protective reactions." When this occurs, children usually exhibit risk-taking behaviors including rule breaking, fighting back and hurting others. And this, says Dr. Ford, is the pathway to delinquency.
There is growing research into childhood trauma in the traditional sense of parental or caretaker abuse and neglect as well as serious life stressors such as witnessing violence, experiencing the death of a caretaker, or the separation of parents.
But I ask to what extent our school systems -- with the aid of police and the courts -- have caused the "dis-empowerment" of children and consequently compromise their pursuit of happiness?
We have a compulsory school attendance law mandating children attend school. We make them leave their homes and spend most of their waking hours under a roof with hundreds of other kids. When we send our kids to school, the school exercises control over them using the doctrine of "in loco parentis" - -a Latin phrase meaning "In the place of a parent." Lets face it, school administrators and teachers are caretakers. They are acting in the place of a parent to do what's in the best interest of the child.
In our current era of zero tolerance laws and policies to punish students with suspension, expulsion, and arrest, schools, in their role as a parent, overreact in many circumstances that can traumatize those they are obliged to protect?
I am not even referring to those students who have already experienced childhood trauma and enter our schools with existing vulnerabilities due to "dis-empowerment" and now re-traumatized with handcuffs, a ride in the back of a patrol car, the experience of booking procedures and maybe a jail cell.
Let's stick to the kids that did not experience childhood trauma -- the kids that are relatively healthy in an emotional sense, but sometimes get caught up in the juvenile version of the Jerry Springer Show. Let's not forget that kids are neurologically wired to do stupid things. They are under neurological construction and need positive surroundings and thoughtful and deliberative responses from their adult caretakers when they find themselves in stressful circumstances.
Last year, a deputy in our campus police program was called to a classroom to confront a disruptive student. The child got upset at a teacher's directive and went off. In the old days -- before we developed our school referral reduction protocol -- a complaint would have been filed with the court and maybe the child handcuffed. Instead, using crisis intervention skills, the deputy made inquiries and learned that the student did not have anything to eat in 24 hours. She took the student to the cafeteria, fed her, and the student was fine the rest of the day. A referral was made to social services to look into the matter.
In another school, a deputy was called to a classroom. This time it was a student throwing items and threatening to kill the teacher. The student had to be removed from the classroom immediately. Again, in the old days, she would have been handcuffed and transported to juvenile court intake -- no questions asked. Afterall, she threatened to kill a teacher! Instead, the deputy isolated her, calmed her down, and using crisis intervention discovered that her mother’s live-in boyfriend was raping her. She was taken into protective custody -- not arrested --and her mother's boyfriend arrested instead.
What are we doing to kids when the adults wear zero tolerances glasses? Why can't we see the many missed opportunities to save kids from traumatic circumstances? Why do we insist on pursuing a policy that re-traumatizes traumatized kids and traumatize emotionally healthy kids?
Take for instance the recent case of the 8-year-old Georgia student who brought an unloaded gun to school in his backpack. The administrators admit that the child's intention was to show it off. There was no intent to hurt anyone. But our laws demand that this 8-year-old must be expelled from school for one year. The caretakers in his life -- the school -- is kicking him out of what is equivalent to his home away from home. The place that serves as the best protective buffer against delinquency --education and social development. Will this child be traumatized--"dis-empowered?"
I think many would be surprised to find how many campus police prefer Clayton County Georgia's model of Positive Student Engagement over arresting as a means of policing on campus. Myself and Lt. Francisco Romero of the Clayton County Police Department recently traveled to Broward County, Fla. to deliver training on this model. When all was said and done, a survey was taken of police on the question: "How many would favor a no arrest policy of nonviolent misdemeanants?" It was unanimous -- all campus police raised their hands!
I was overwhelmed when Major Miguel A. Martinez of the Hallandale Beach Police Department modified Maslow's quote of a "hammer" and "nail' to fit the campus police scenario -- "If the only tool is a cop--than every problem is a crime."
We cannot arrest our way out of every problem. It's not that simple!
We are capable of doing better for our children.
The Second Mile, the charity organization founded by Jerry Sandusky – the former Penn State coach convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse in June – announced Monday it is postponing plans to transfer its programs and assets to a Houston-based nonprofit.
Earlier this summer, The Second Mile requested that it be allowed to transfer its programs and assets, totaling nearly $2 million, to Arrow Child & Family Ministries, Inc. However, The Second Mile Chief Executive, David Woodle, said the deal is suspended until all ongoing damage claims filed by the lawyers of Sandusky’s victims are resolved.
Monday, Woodle announced that his organization - in agreement with Pennsylvania attorney general and lawyers representing four youth victimized by Sandusky - has requested that the Orphans’ Court Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Center County stay a previous Petition for Distribution of Assets filed by the nonprofit.
“Both The Second Mile and Arrow feel that staying the Petition at this time will better serve all involved as it limits further stress on the victims and avoids unnecessary litigation costs,” Woodle is quoted in an official statement released by the nonprofit.
The organization was founded in 1977 by Sandusky. Woodle said the organization would continue operations, using cash reserves.
The report, published by Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT project , entitled "Stepping Up for Kids: What Government and Communities Should Do to Support Kinship Families", found that approximately 2.7 million children are currently living with people other than their parents, an arrangement also known as kinship care. The report also found that about 9 percent of the nation’s youth will live under care of an extended family member for at least three months at some point in their childhood.
The authors of the report claim that kinship care needs to be addressed by both community and government programs, as many times family members or friends that assume parental responsibilities are hampered by limited income and the legal inability to obtain basic medical services or authorize medical consent for the children in their care.
According to the report, kinship care guardians are very likely to be poor, single, older, less educated and/or unemployed and are often unfamiliar with federal assistance programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Even with financial assistance, the authors of the report say kinship care guardians are likely to experience financial shortcomings, as the benefit levels for TANF recipients averages out at $249 a month for single-child households and $344 for households with two children.
According to recent U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, the average monthly cost of raising a child in the United States is assumed to be $990, while two-child households are assumed to cost guardians, on average, an estimated $1,980 a month.
The report says that kinship care is especially prevalent in African-American communities, where children are approximately twice as likely to be raised by extended family or close family friends than the nation’s general population.
The authors of the report recommend several steps for communities and state agencies to help children in kinship care, including reform of foster-home licensing requirements and the use of TANF-funded programs to supplement low-income guardians.
“The federal government already has a solid framework in place for serving these families and several states have taken steps to actively support extended families and friends as they assume their new care giving roles,” Robert Green, Director of Family Services and Systems Policy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is quoted in a recent press release from the organization.
“Every state and community needs to adopt such changes, especially addressing the needs of lower-income families," he said.