When Two Insecure Worlds Collide, Kids Are Hurt

Wouldn't it be nice if life were simple--that the answers to our problems were obvious and problems solved with painless ease? Take for instance Johnny, the boy I described in my last essay, who from birth was toted around by his Mom to trap houses to get her fix. No telling what he saw--or much worse, what others did to him--in those places. Johnny is a confused kid, emotionally pained by fear of insecurity. His weapon of defense: defiance fueled by anger.

Johnny pains us too, because he is aggravating with his chronic disobedience of the rules. We keep sanctioning him, with the misguided notion that punishment will change his attitude, until we give up, wash our hands, and commit him to the state thinking we did all we could do. The paradox of juvenile justice is that on one hand we do have the capacity to diagnose his cause of delinquency and we do know what it will take to improve his behavior, but on the other hand most systems don't know what to do or don't have the resources or both.  Our response is to give up and take the road of least resistance--detain or commit by default. When the means to do what is right for a kid is not readily available, we dump our problem somewhere else--a detention facility, state custody, or in a long-term secure facility.

Consequently, most states, including mine, have a lot of low-risk, high-needs kids in state custody that could otherwise remain in the community if judges had the resources necessary to effectively treat these kids. We commit them to a place we call secure, but the truth is they are insecure. They aggravate the insecurities of the Johnnys who will return home one day worse off than when they entered.

I admit that I fell victim to this default system during the first few years on the bench, and it was frustrating. Our detention and commitment rates were high--and so were our recidivist rates! Something had to give in my community to reverse this vicious cycle of detention to commitment to re-offending. Juveniles entering our system were getting worse, not better. This is true in many states--including my own!

I did not get that help until 2003, after four years into the job--and it wasn't in the form of money. My court joined over 100 courts from around the country to participate in the Annie E. Casey Foundation Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI). The JDAI modelm, along with the networking, taught me to think outside the box.

The foundation of any successful local juvenile justice system is leadership through collaboration, and JDAI helped us to realize this need. Something had to give, and that “something” was us!  We had to stop pointing fingers and saying, "Its not my problem," or coming up with social, legal, political and who knows how many other reasons our creative minds can conjure to excuse why we can't be and do different for the good of our kids--and ultimately our community.

We created a juvenile justice cooperative and from it many cooperative protocols were produced in accordance with the Community Based Risk Reduction law that exists in our juvenile code (OCGA 15-11-10).  That's right! It is public policy that judges exercise leadership to bring stakeholders together to develop cooperative agreements to address and prevent delinquency, deprivation and unruliness.

Over time, this cooperative caused a cognitive shift through the relationships that ensued between the agencies--a realization that the juvenile justice system is not a single entity, but a collection of independent public and private groups that can do far more for kids and families if their resources are shared and realigned to focus on a desired outcome--prevent delinquency and reduce recidivism.

This cognitive group shift resulted in a 70 percent decrease in the average daily detention population and 43 percent fewer commitments to state custody.

Johnny is now on GPS and he and the family are being evaluated by our Clayton County Collaborative Child Study Team (Quad C-ST), our single point of entry into our System of Care (SOC). This group of multi-disciplinary stakeholders meets weekly to assess kids and families to develop a plan that targets the reasons for his behavior, his childhood trauma among others. The stakeholders share resources, a concept foreign to us in the beginning, but a way of life now.

Recently, I made a presentation as part of a panel at the Carter Center, an annual symposium on mental health sponsored by former First Lady Rosalyn Carter. I had the privilege to share the panel with Dr. Julian Ford, a leading researcher on child trauma and delinquency.

He shared studies focusing on trauma child victimization as a pathway to delinquency, including clinical and epidemiological studies indicating that three in four youths in the juvenile justice system have been exposed to some form of trauma. Trauma could include violence, abuse, neglect, or an accumulation of stressful life events such as family problems, including death, drugs, parent-child conflict and mental illness.

Studies indicate that victimized children under age 12 are at serious risk, especially if in a family of low function, and may respond as a victim and act out in self-protection. Their self-protective responses, in their child’s mind, can translate into defiance of rules and authority.

Dr. Ford states it this way--a traumatized youth's "thinking tends to be reactive, rigid, impulsive and defiant. This, in turn, leads to distorted views of self, peers and relationships and difficulty solving ordinary social problems."

Sound familiar for us in juvenile justice?

Dr. Ford and others have recommendations for judges--require an assessment tool to determine the presence of trauma stressors to design an order that targets the trauma needs of the child using proven interventions, such as emotional dys-regulation and survival using victim based information processing to help the kid recover from victimization.

Detention and commitment re-traumatizes the kid--yet it happens too often because commitment becomes a default when the hammer is the only tool.

Most systems of funding are ineffective and wasteful--not to mention hurtful! We spend more money removing kids from their home, even though about half could be treated at home at a cost far less expensive--and with greater success.

A number of states have made changes in how they do business, with good outcomes. The changes were dramatic--the type that makes people insecure and push back, making excuses why we cant do it, for fear of change.

For those feeling the insecurity and want to push back, now you know how Johnny lives every day of his life.

Our insecurities keep many of our kids locked up in a world of insecurity. Something has to give.