OP-ED: How Do We Build Resilience Among Youth?

15328419577137.rHd3MFWsVnZ9VFkjM3U8_height640How can the juvenile justice system — and other agencies that serve children — build post-traumatic resilience among youth? The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the nation’s largest foundation dedicated to improving the health of all Americans, is exploring how it can contribute to ending the culture of violence and trauma that is an obstacle to good health for too many vulnerable Americans. We cannot call ourselves a healthy nation if we continue to be a violent one.

A new report from the Juvenile Law Center, commissioned by RWJF, makes it clear that in addition to providing trauma-informed services, we need to be mindful of how we use our knowledge of a child's trauma to help and not to hurt.

The report, “Trauma and Resilience: A New Look at Legal Advocacy for Youth in the Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Systems,” provides a vital look at how system involvement — in the juvenile justice or child welfare system — can cause trauma, or exacerbate underlying trauma caused by sexual abuse, violence, the death of a loved one, witnessing violence and other experiences. The report sets forth ways to support resilience in youth, and also recognizes the risk of lifelong damage from unaddressed trauma. It includes both strategies for individual advocates and policy recommendations for changing the system.

How You Can Contribute

As we think about supporting trauma-informed services — in schools, clinical settings, communities and elsewhere — we have a number of questions we are exploring:

  • When, in our efforts to help children, is it appropriate to surface knowledge of trauma and when is it not?
  • How do we connect children and families to systems and ensure that they are supported rather than put at risk of further trauma?
  • Children from different socioeconomic backgrounds are exposed to violence and trauma, but there are disparities in who receives appropriate care. How do we ensure that high-quality resources are reaching all children and families who need them?
  • How do we build and expand systems that recognize a child is not defined solely by the trauma he or she has experienced, but provide the proactive approaches that strengthen and build resilience?

You can help us to answer these questions by sharing the names of people and organizations that you believe are doing effective and/or innovative trauma-informed work, by sharing research you are conducting or perhaps just reading. You can also share your own ideas. Share in the comment section below, or join the conversation taking place on the RWJF Forum.


Jennifer Ng’andu is a program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Youth Crime Declining in Massachusetts, Says New Report

A new Data Points report from the organization Citizens for Juvenile Justice indicates that juvenile arrests in Massachusetts are on the decline, with the number of young people being arrested in 2011 dropping by more than 20 percent compared to 2010 findings.

The report also finds violent and property offenses committed by juveniles in the state to be decreasing, with 2009 data indicating an 8 percent decrease and 4 percent decrease, respectively, from juvenile violent crime and property crime rates in 2008. Compared to 1998 data, researchers say that property crimes and violent crimes committed by juveniles have decreased dramatically, with the rates in Massachusetts for violent crime plummeting by 36 percent and property crime dropping by 45 percent over the 11-year study window.

Researchers have also observed a decline in Massachusetts juvenile court charges. For the FY 2012, the total number of “youthful offender” and delinquency proceedings brought before state juvenile courts dropped 13 percent from FY 2011 data, representing nearly a 44 percent decline in total proceedings since 2008. In 2011, 274 Massachusetts juveniles received “youthful offender” indictments, representing a 15 percent decrease from 2010 and a reduction of almost 30 percent compared to 2007 data.

The report indicates that young people of color are being disproportionately represented in Massachusetts’ juvenile courts, with Hispanic and African-American juveniles representing 53 percent of total filed charges in 2011. Researchers also say that African-Americans, representing 38 percent of charges, and Hispanics, representing 25 percent of charges, are similarly disproportionately represented in the state’s 2011 “youthful offender” cases.

The authors of the report say the data strongly suggests that many of the young people that come into contact with the state’s juvenile justice system have “inadequately addressed educational, physical and behavioral health needs,” noting that in the total 2011 “risk/need” probation population, almost three-quarters of juveniles were determined to require “counseling needs,” while almost 85 percent were identified as having “educational needs.”

The study also describes Department of Youth Services (DYS) data as “disturbing,” finding that last year, almost two-fifths of young people held in pre-trial detention had open Department of Children and Families (DCF) cases, with more than 60 percent of Hispanic girls in Massachusetts having open DCF cases while being detained in 2011.

Frequent Marijuana Use Among Teens is Up

A joint. JJIE file photo. Ryan Schill / JJIE.orgHeavy marijuana use among teens has increased drastically in recent years, with nearly one in 10 sparking up 20 times or more each month, according to a new survey of young Americans released this morning.

The findings represent nearly an 80 percent increase in past-month heavy marijuana use among high school aged youth since 2008.

Overall, the rate of marijuana use among teens has increased. Past month marijuana users, or teens that have used marijuana in the month prior to the survey, increased 42 percent, to 27 percent of teens, compared to 2008 findings. Past-year and lifetime use also increased, but not as drastically, at 26 percent and 21 percent respectively.

Marijuana use has not been this widespread among American teens since 1998, when the past-month usage rate hovered around 27 percent, according the survey conducted by The Partnership at and the MetLife Foundation.

“Heavy use of marijuana – particularly beginning in adolescence – brings the risk of serious problems and our data show it is linked to involvement with alcohol and other drugs as well,” Steve Pasierb, President and CEO of The Partnership at, said in a press release. “Kids who begin using drugs or alcohol as teenagers are more likely to struggle with substance use disorders when compared to those who start using after the teenage years.”

The use of marijuana is becoming normalized among teens, too, according to the survey of 3,322 teen-aged students in grades 9-12 and 821 parents. Seventy-one percent of teens said they have friends who use the drug, up 64 percent from 2008, and only 26 percent agreed with the statement, “in my school, most teens don’t smoke marijuana.”

Still, while the number of teens who have used marijuana in their lifetime is on the rise, less than half of high school aged students have actually used the drug. The rate of teens who disapproved of their peer’s use of the drug remained unchanged since 2008, with more than 60 percent disapproving of the practice – and 41 percent who said they “strongly disapprove.”

Heavy users  are drastically more likely to use other drugs such as cocaine, Ecstasy and prescription drugs, compared to their peers who reported not using marijuana in the past year, the report found.

Teen boys, especially Hispanic males, have led the increase in the past year. Heavy usage by teen boys usage increased at nearly twice the rate of their female counterparts. Hispanic high school males are more likely to have used marijuana in the past year compared to their peers. Fifty percent reported using the drug in the past year, compared to 40 percent of black and 35 percent of white teens.

“The latest findings showing an increase in marijuana use among teens is unsettling and should serve as a wake-up call to everyone in a position to prevent unhealthy behavior,” said Dennis White, President and CEO of MetLife Foundation, who contributed to the report. “While it may be difficult to clearly understand just how dangerous marijuana use can be for teens, it is imperative that we all pay attention to the warning signs and intervene anyway we can.”

The findings are part of the 23rd annual Partnership Attitude Tracking Study, a yearly gauge of teens’ and parents’ attitudes toward issues that affect their lives.


Photo credit: Ryan Schill/JJIE

Most Victims of Sexual Assault Know the Alleged Offender, Study Finds

A study conducted in a sexual assault resource center found more than 70 percent of alleged offenders were known to the victims. The report by researchers at the University of Tennessee, “Percentage of Named Offenders on the Registry at the Time of the Assault: Reports from Sexual Assault Survivors,” used one year of data from the resource center during which it provided services to approximately 1,300 people.

Full names were provided for more than 60 percent of the known assailants. Of those 566 cases only 4.8 percent were found on a sex offender registry and even fewer, 3.7 percent (21 cases) were listed publicly due to the date of conviction. More than 95 percent of the alleged offenders were know personally to the victims in the 21 cases where the offender could have been identified by the sex offender registry.

Researchers concluded the sex offender registries might have limited impact due to the fact that they only include convicted sex offenders. Further complicating the issue, past studies have shown “95.9 percent of those arrested for rape and 94.1 percent of those arrested for child molestation were first-time sex offenders.”

The report was published in the journal Violence Against Women.

KIDS COUNT: Significant Decline in Children’s Economic Well Being Over Past Decade

There has been a significant decline in economic well being for low-income children and families in the last decade, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual KIDS COUNT Data Book.

Among the findings, the official child poverty rate, a conservative measure of economic hardship according to the report, increased 18 percent between 2000 and 2009. The increase represents 2.4 million more children now living below the federal poverty line, returning to roughly the same levels as the early 1990’s.

“In 2009, 42 percent of our nation’s children, or 31 million, lived in families with incomes below twice the federal poverty line or $43,512/year for a family of four, a minimum needed for most families to make ends meet,” Laura Speer, associate director for Policy Reform and Data at the Casey Foundation, said in a press release. “The recent recession has wiped out many of the economic gains for children that occurred in the late 1990’s.”

In the past two decades, since the Casey Foundation started the KIDS COUNT report, significant gains have been recorded in the overall health and safety of children.

Since 2000, five of the ten key indicators of child well being examined by the Foundation improved, three areas worsened and two were not comparable to earlier data, but show a negative trend since 2007, the earliest year comparable data is available.

Areas that showed improvement since 2000:

• Infant mortality rate (-1 percent)
• Child death rate (-14 percent)
• Teen death rate (-7 percent)
• Teen birth rate (-15 percent)
• Teens not in school and not high school graduates (-45 percent)

Areas that worsened since 2000:

• Babies born with low birthweight (+8 percent)
• Child poverty rate (+18 percent)
• Children living in single-parent families (+10 percent)

Areas not comparable to 2000:

• Percentage of teens not in school and not working
• Percentage of children living in families where no parent has full-time, year-round employment

The 2011 report also includes two additional indicators: parental unemployment and foreclosure. Last year, 11 percent of children had at least one unemployed parent and 4 percent have been affected by foreclosure since 2007.

Within each indicator, however, individual state performances vary widely.

Nationally, the number of children living in a single-parent household increased by 10 percent since 2000. Only Utah, Oregon and the District of Columbia showed a decrease, while 45 states reported an increase.

Texas, with single-family households at roughly the national average of 34 percent, witnessed a similar trend with a 7 percent increase.

“I don’t think these findings are surprising,” said Mark Levin, director of Right on Crime, a Texas-based think tank that deals in part with juvenile issues, adding that only about 20 percent of incarcerated youth in the state have a father in the household. “The role of government isn’t to force people to get married or stay married, but in our public schools we can look at filling the gap and try to provide the support and guidance they’re [children] not getting at home.”

Mississippi showed improvements in infant mortality and low birth weights, but has consistently ranked 50th throughout the past decade in overall performance. In 2011, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama ranked the lowest in the nation overall.

“[Alabama] has always had a higher poverty rate than the rest of the nation,” said Linda Tilley, executive director of Voices for Alabama’s Children. “We see so many children already behind when they enter kindergarten and the gaps don’t narrow, they widen. Education and particularly early care and education are the key to breaking the generational cycle of poverty.”

“Every child can succeed given the right education and support,” Levin added. “It’s important to note many youths from single family houses go on to be successful."

The complete report, mapping tools, and other resources are available on the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s website.