Adolescents involved in the juvenile justice system are commonly referred to mental health services in order to address the behaviors that led them to legal involvement in the first place. These services are offered via individual therapy, group therapy, substance abuse treatment, family preservation services, residential placement services, etc.
Each modality of service has its own unique advantages and disadvantages for various clients. However, all modalities generate a basic treatment plan that guides the delivery of services, a plan that theoretically addresses the proposed mechanism of change that will alleviate dysfunctional behaviors.
Over the past 10 years, I have reviewed hundreds of treatment plans across these settings. These plans are tailored to each client’s needs, but most have the same common components. For example, there is usually mention of the generic term “coping skills” that is supposed to lead to the desired change of behavior. These coping skills can include techniques such as thought identification and restructuring, positive thinking, perspective changes, variations of DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) skill training and other related concepts.
Many of these techniques have been researched and proven to have some effectiveness in the treatment of behavioral health disorders. However, no treatment modality is perfect, and a unique quality of adolescents involved in the legal system is that they tend to be somewhat resistant to traditional talk therapy treatment. This creates a conundrum that I believe can be efficiently addressed by focusing on the roots of emotional experience.
I believe that by solely focusing on this concept of coping skills, we are doing the equivalent of asking adolescents to perform algebra without first having a proper understanding of addition and subtraction. In other words, we are neglecting to teach adolescents the fundamental components of emotional regulation.
In typical developing children, these fundamentals are normally established within the first few years of life via a secure and healthy attachment to their caregivers. No formal emotional regulation skills are taught per se, but the comfort and predictability of a healthy attachment allows the body to experience emotions safely. This foundation over time allows the individual to exert a measure of control over their emotional experience, and consequently permits them to regulate emotions competently enough to make safe and responsible choices.
Many of the adolescents who come to my office did not have a typical childhood, and do not possess the emotional foundation necessary to effectively regulate their emotions. Thus, I believe it is necessary and essential to establish this foundation before any higher level of coping skills are approached. Without this foundation, resistance emerges, coping skills fail, and recidivism is nearly inevitable.
So how does one consciously build an emotional foundation that is largely constructed on an unconscious level throughout the early years of life? The answer to this question lies within the body. Or more appropriately, the answer to this questions IS the body.
Research over the past several decades has discovered that emotional experiences are a product of numerous synergistic systems that vacillate throughout the brain and body. An understanding of all these systems is a complex undertaking that is both daunting and perhaps outside the scope of this article.
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Instead, I believe we can simplify these dynamic interactions by focusing on the interplay of two powerful systems: the limbic system and the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Again, to avoid a rambling explanation of these two systems I will simplify by saying the limbic system is the emotional center of the brain and the ANS is the nervous system in the body responsible for the opposing phenomena of “fight or flight” and “rest and relaxation.”
The limbic system serves as the gatekeeper for all sensation the body experiences. Every sensation and stimuli must pass through this system before it progresses to any other higher-order part of the brain responsible for conscious thought. If the gatekeeper decides a certain stimulus is unsafe, it promptly directs the ANS to create an experience of fight or flight. The severity of the perception of threat then determines the strength of the fight or flight response.
A commonality shared by many of our adolescents is the tendency to consistently mislabel stimuli as being threatening and unsafe. Another commonality is that they tend to overestimate the severity of the perceived threat.
Consequently, this leads to an exaggerated emotional response to a situation, and a decreased ability to activate their rest and relax system. Another unfortunate side effect of an intense fight or flight response is a decreased ability to engage in logical thought. Thus, these adolescents are unable to access the part of the brain that is responsible for behavioral inhibition and logical thought, and therefore are unable to choose an adaptive response to a situation.
This leads to my last rhetorical question: How do we teach an adolescent to gain control of their body? I believe there are several steps needed to accomplish this goal. First, knowledge is power. In the paraphrased words of Sun Tzu (author of “The Art of War”), “In order to beat our enemy, we must know our enemy.”
Teaching adolescents exactly what is occurring in their body is both empowering and destigmatizing. They no longer view themselves as out of control and unmanageable. Instead, they can look at their experience the same way they would look at any other medical disorder.
Aka, their emotional experience is a result of systems in the body that are not functioning properly. I have found that this simple realization helps my clients better understand themselves and more clearly perceive the path they must take to gain control of these dysfunctional systems.
Once they gain a knowledge of emotional experience in the body, they are then taught how to identify these emotional experiences within their body. For example, anger is characterized by increased heart rate, muscle tension, sweating, feeling “hot” in the face, clenched teeth, along with numerous other symptoms unique to the individual’s anger response.
At a later point in treatment, the client can learn the cognitive components to their emotional response, but I tend to focus on the physical symptoms first. Physical symptoms are more objective and easy to identify, whereas many adolescents struggle to identify cognitive errors since they tend to justify their thoughts and deflect the idea that they are incorrectly assessing a situation.
Once they have mapped out their physical response to emotions, they can then identify the triggers in their life that produce these emotions. These triggers are typically based within interpersonal interactions, and are often present within family and school dynamics. Most adolescents can easily identify their triggers, although some triggers may be beyond their current level of insight.
After trigger identification has occurred, the client creates a plan to address triggers. Basically, this involves a recognition that a trigger is occurring or is soon to occur, and a selection of physical skills to implement before or during the trigger. A fundamental skill for this process is mindfulness. A client must be mindful of their triggers and internal sensations in order to actively address them.
Mindfulness is an amazing skill for any client to develop, and research has shown that the majority of symptom reduction that happens within treatment occurs by simply becoming mindful of one’s triggers and emotional experience. There are many techniques used to teach mindfulness, and I would argue that this is an essential state of mind to achieve before true progress can occur within treatment.
Finally, the client is taught how to control their body. There are many techniques that can be used to accomplish this goal. I am a personal advocate of biofeedback treatment, as it targets physiological arousal and allows the client to see their physical response on a computer screen. I have seen quicker and more powerful results using biofeedback treatment (I utilize heart-rate variability biofeedback treatment via the HeartMath software program) than I have seen using traditional cognitive and behavioral techniques.
Nevertheless, there are basic techniques the client should learn with or without biofeedback assistance. These techniques include exercises such as breathing retraining, somatic awareness, grounding, positive memory generation and progressive muscle relaxation. Each of these techniques has a profound affect upon the ANS, which then has a significant effect on alleviating the impact of the limbic system.
But if you had to choose one technique to perform with each client, I would recommend breathing retraining every time. This technique directly impacts the vacillations between the fight and flight system and the rest and relaxation system of the ANS. Our respiratory system impacts our cardiac system, and our cardiac output directly impacts the emotional experience of the limbic system.
This column is a brief summarization of the importance of attuning to the physical experience of our adolescent clients. It is not comprehensive nor instructive.
However, I hope to emphasize that we must teach our clients to walk before they can run. By targeting the underlying physical correlates to their emotional experience, we can empower our clients to gain control of their bodies.
And once they can control their bodies, they have a plethora of options in any situation. They will not be bound to respond impulsively and emotionally. Instead, they can make their decisions based on their goals and values, and they can work toward the future they truly deserve.
Ryan Cole is a licensed clinical psychologist at Brain and Body Integration in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He specializes in psychological assessment and biofeedback treatment of emotional disorders.
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The first contact with the juvenile justice system presents an enormous opportunity for the court, court personnel, attorneys and service providers to impact the lives of children and their families. In many states, first contact happens within the context of the Child in Need of Services (CHINS), Families in Need of Services (FINS) and Persons in Need of Services (PINS).
In all cases, the “need of services” is paramount. First contact with the Juvenile Court must be taken seriously, and the role of all court personnel, attorneys and parties should be made clear to everyone involved.
First contact is important to the child. The child must know that the court will be fair, and that the court will follow the law. The child must also know that the dispositions decided on by the court represent an effort to rehabilitate the child. First contact presents an opportunity for the court to gather information, get to know the child and family, get to evaluate appropriate services and get to evaluate the child and the family’s receptiveness to services.
I recently had a child communicate to me through a representative that “this was the first time I’ve been in a courtroom and not been in trouble. Some judges really do care.”
CHINS in Georgia
CHINS is a relatively new legal construct in the state of Georgia. It came into being on Jan. 1, 2014, when Georgia’s 2013 Child Protection and Public Safety Act went into effect. The Georgia Code defines CHINS as a child adjudicated to be in need of care, guidance, counseling, structure, supervision, treatment or rehabilitation who also is adjudicated to be truant, habitually disobedient of his or her parent or custodian and is ungovernable, a runaway, a status offender (an offense applicable only to a child), a child who wanders or loiters between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m., a child who violates court-ordered supervision or a child who patronizes any bar where alcoholic beverages are being sold, unaccompanied by his or her parent or possesses alcoholic beverages, etc.
The purpose of the CHINS law includes: “to acknowledge that certain behaviors or conditions occurring within a family or school environment indicate that a child is experiencing serious difficulties and is in need of services and corrective action in order to protect such child from the irreversibility of certain choices and to protect the integrity of such child’s family; to make family members aware of their contributions to their family’s problems and to encourage family members to accept the responsibility to participate in any program of care ordered by the court; and to provide a child with a program of treatment, care, guidance, counseling, structure, supervision, and rehabilitation that he or she needs to assist him or her in becoming a responsible and productive member of society.” These CHINS are neither delinquent nor dependent. These are the children who can be rehabilitated.
CHINS Proceedings in Georgia
The Georgia Code does not set forth the procedures for handling CHINS cases, and Georgia’s Juvenile Courts’ implementation of the Code Section varies. Fulton County created a CHINS Protocol that established a diversionary program called the CHINS Registry. It refers families to the appropriate providers before a formal petition is filed, the goal being to keep children and families out of court involvement.
The CHINS Protocol also established a diversionary program called the Educational Recovery Program (ERP), which seeks to refer children likely to be adjudicated as truant and their families to services; again the goal is to keep children and families out of court involvement.
A laudable benefit of these diversionary programs is that they create a record of the attempts at resolution made by the court, and often provide a baseline for evaluation when a child is adjudicated as a CHINS. The CHINS proceeding in Fulton County goes forward without the involvement of the district attorney. The parent(s) “prosecute” the case, present evidence under oath, and the child, who is represented by a public defender, responds. The court makes the adjudication, based on clear and convincing evidence, whether the child is a CHINS.
CHINS Dispositions in Georgia
The Georgia Code does provide the court broad discretion in fashioning a disposition for the CHINS. The CHINS disposition is a tremendous opportunity to divert children from delinquency adjudications and to divert families from dependency adjudications. From our work with dually involved youth (children involved in both dependency and delinquency proceedings), we know that the outcomes for these dually involved children are drastically worse than for other children involved in the juvenile court system. Utilizing the CHINS disposition to steer a child away from delinquency adjudication and/or dependency adjudication will decrease the likelihood that the child will end up in the adult prison system.
The hallmark of the delinquency process to adjudication is some amount of time in detention. Numerous longitudinal studies show that early interventions for children likely to be delinquent decrease the likelihood of young adult incarceration. The CHINS disposition is another opportunity to provide early intervention and to prevent a delinquency adjudication.
Incidence and Dispositions of CHINS Cases 2014-15
In 2014, a total of 646 CHINS and CHINS Registry cases were managed by the Fulton County Juvenile Court. The dispositions of these cases show that 265 (41 percent) were dismissed (usually the families indicate that they have had a breakthrough with their providers, and request closure of the case), 168 (26 percent) were closed successfully (the child and family completed the requirements of the disposition), 52 (8 percent) were adjusted prior to adjudication (after holding the adjudication in abeyance, the child and family successfully participate in court-ordered services and supervision) and 32 (5 percent) of the cases ended up with probation or supervision. Overall, 517 (80 percent) of the CHINS cases reviewed by the Court ended up in positive outcomes, effectively preventing or delaying the child’s entry into the juvenile justice system.
The distribution of the 2014 CHINS cases totaling 646 showed that 258 (40 percent) were categorized as ungovernable/unruly, 196 (30 percent) were categorized as runaways, 69 (11 percent) were categorized as violations of probation/supervision, 64 (10 percent) were categorized as curfew violations, 41 (6 percent) were categorized as truancy and 18 (3 percent) were categorized as Minor in Possession of Alcohol or in a Bar.
In 2015, a total of 941 CHINS and CHINS Registry cases were managed by the Fulton County Juvenile Court. The dispositions of these cases show that 292 (31 percent) were dismissed, 235 (25 percent) were closed successfully, 38 (4 percent) were adjusted prior to adjudication and 75 (8 percent) of the cases ended up with probation or supervision. Although not as high a percentage as 2014, in 2015 640 (68 percent) of the CHINS cases reviewed by the court ended up in positive outcomes.
The distribution of the 2015 CHINS cases totaling 941 showed that 360 (38 percent) were categorized as ungovernable/unruly, 233 (25 percent) were categorized as runaways, 231 (25 percent) were categorized as truancy, 65 (7 percent) were categorized as curfew violations, 40 (4 percent) were categorized as violations of probation/supervision and 12 (1 percent) were categorized as Minor in Possession of Alcohol or in a Bar.
Demographics of CHINS Cases 2014-2015
According to the 2015 Census population estimate, Fulton County has more than 1 million residents, and Georgia.gov currently lists Fulton County’s population at 1,014,932. The population of Fulton County is diverse, as shown in the following figures: African-American residents (44.3 percent), white residents (40.5 percent), Hispanic (7.2 percent) and Asian (6.7 percent). This population mix is not reflective of the CHINS demographics, which reflect an overwhelming representation of African-Americans and raises the need for a statistical analysis of disproportionate minority contact in this system.
The demographics of the 2014 CHINS and CHINS Registry population were 52 percent female and 48 percent male. The racial breakdown reflected 82 percent African-American, 7 percent Caucasian and 4 percent Hispanic, with 7 percent categorized as Other/Unknown. The demographics of the 2015 CHINS and CHINS Registry population were 51 percent female and 49 percent male. The racial breakdown reflected 85 percent African-American, 5 percent Caucasian and 5 percent Hispanic, with 5 percent were categorized as Other/Unknown.
The importance of first contact
Early intervention is an important component of services to prevent further penetration into the juvenile justice system. CHINS-type systems provide the court an opportunity to get the child and their families the services they need before the child is facing the specter of a delinquency adjudication. Our data shows that our CHINS children are disproportionately African-American compared to the population of African-Americans in Fulton County. Our data also shows that the majority of our CHINS cases are categorized as ungovernable/unruly, runaways and truants.
The data is permitting the court to focus our service providers to provide services geared toward these populations — ungovernable/unruly, runaways and truants. First contact, which utilizes data-driven responses to our population and issues, is allowing the court to work smarter and more efficiently. I encourage my colleagues to utilize first contact situations in their jurisdictions to design data-driven responses also.
Presiding Judge Willie J. Lovett Jr. is a Juvenile Court judge for the Atlanta Judicial Circuit. Judge Lovett also serves as an adjunct professor of law at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, where he teaches Juvenile Law, Local Government Law and Georgia Practice and Procedure.
The violence I was exposed to at an early age shaped who I became. It desensitized my perspective on violence, numbed my cries and dumbed down violence to the point I stopped asking why.
I developed a twisted view where I viewed violence as normal, justified and should be left in silence.
I was in a baby stroller when my mother was robbed at gunpoint. At 5 years old I saw my mom’s boyfriend beat her and I was thrown into a pool, left to doggy paddle, almost drowning while grown-ups laughed, drank alcohol and got high on drugs. Soon after, a man was killed in front of our house, lying dead in the middle of the street.
At the age of 12, I began to use drugs/alcohol, ditch school, act a fool, run the streets and rebel against my mother. As I look back, it was this older cat who was a bad influence in my life. The truth is he introduced me to drugs/alcohol, gangs, violence, robbery, stealing, and a criminal lifestyle.
Every time, I got into trouble my mother exposed me to the truth that he was no good. I ignored her voice of reason. I was hard-headed, thinking I knew it all. I also looked up to this older cat because he could fight, had cars, money, and status in the hood.
Ducking down when shots were fired or running from crime scenes until you were tired became normal and made me feel tough, cool and down. Seeing people get shot, beat up, rat-packed or stabbed became part of the criminal lifestyle. Some would laugh if you got beat up or knocked out in a fight. I was sucked into the dark street life and couldn’t see the light of normal life.
As my life spiraled out of control, at age 16 I committed a second-degree murder and two attempted murders. This older cat gave me a gun, delegated someone to drive the getaway car, and he turned state’s evidence against me!
The sad truth is my mother told me over and over don’t hang around him, he’s no good, but I chose to follow him, to fit in and be accepted. What if I would have listened to my mother? What other choices or options were available? Another truth is I knew in my heart and gut he was no good.
Through Juvenile Hall and prison I experienced effects of violence and PTSD. In Juvenile Hall my neighbor was making loud noises. Staff thought it was me. I stood my ground and stuck to the truth. The 250-pound staff member grabbed my neck and lifted me toward the roof.
When I was in the “box” (the hole) in Juvenile Hall, my neighbor, who was on psych medication, made loud noises. Then I heard thumping, yelling “get down” and finally loud moaning cries, as three staff took him down with a beat down.
In prison, the security squad raided my cell at 3 a.m. All I heard was: “Put your hands up,” while flashlights blinded my eyes. Then I was snatched off my bunk in cuffs.
To this day loud noises, keys jingling, flashlights and the smell of pepper spray triggers a hypervigilant, paranoid, aggressive state of mind. I look down a lot because eye contact with power-hungry cops leads to violence or harassment. I don’t like people behind me, too close to me, and I feel anger toward authority figures who abuse their power.
I say to the young juveniles out there, listen to the ones who love you and care for you. Pay attention to the warning signs of truth. Never forget you have the power to make positive choices in your life.
You have the power to listen to your gut, be a leader and not a follower like I did. You can face these truths and do something about it. Truths, adversity, struggles or mistakes can all be teachable moments that you can grow and learn from.
If a truth in your life comes to the light and it’s too heavy for you to understand. Talk about it with a family member, teacher, preacher, guidance counselor, coach, mentor, or some responsible adult. Please don’t ignore these truths before you do something you regret later … like me regretting my choices 23 years later, still incarcerated, serving 15 years to life!!!
Mathew Edwards was sentenced to life in prison while a juvenile for second-degree murder and two attempted murders. He is now 39, in San Quentin State Prison.
The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Juvenile justice systems have an unprecedented opportunity to utilize advances in knowledge about adolescent development and protecting public safety. The evolution of positive youth development (PYD) approaches and the heightened investment in risk and needs assessments are a prime example.
Taken on the surface, risk and needs assessments inherently undermine the principles of PYD. But, when used intentionally and carefully, using risk and needs assessments within a PYD framework could ensure better outcomes for youth and communities.
Positive youth development is an approach to juvenile justice that is gaining traction in juvenile justice agencies. All jurisdictions may not do it perfectly, but, as an approach, it is far superior to a corrections or medical model. The positive youth development approach means that youth are treated as assets, not victims or as broken people meant to be fixed. Strengths should be leveraged to overcome challenges and a young person should be actively engaged in their own treatments.
Risk and needs assessments also play an increasingly significant role in how youth are treated in the juvenile justice system. With initiatives like JDAI and Models for Change widely encouraging the use of risk and needs assessments, they may well have played a role in the decrease in the number of youth in confinement nationally, which fell 48 percent, from 103,608 in 2001 to 53,462 in 2013.
Numerous states and jurisdictions use them at various phases of the juvenile justice system, including in diversion, placement and programming. They can provide cover for policymakers and government agents, limit subjective decision-making that can lead to out-of-home placement and inform resource allocation within a system.
By looking at factors that do not change (e.g., offense history) as well as those that do (e.g., association with delinquent peers), risk and needs assessments generate a level of risk and need that are meant to be used in deciding a young person’s level of supervision as well as the treatment they should receive. Taken at face value, risk and needs assessments can be helpful in aiding juvenile justice practitioners to make the most informed decisions about the youth that come before them.
Unfortunately, by the nature of their purpose and the science on which they are based, risk and needs assessments do nothing to promote the idea that youth are assets with strengths. By default these tools are intended to predict a youth’s risk of committing another offense or the deficits that may lead to their negative behaviors.
This means these tools place an emphasis on the likelihood that youth might fail, rather than focusing on a young person’s ability to succeed. While some assessments may include protective factors — factors in a youth’s life that are working in their favor and could potentially counterweigh a risk factor — they are usually secondary and not included when determining final level or range of risk and need.
This tension creates quite the dilemma for jurisdictions that might be trying to implement risk and needs assessments effectively while also adopting a positive youth justice approach.
Solely relying on risk and needs levels to be the end-all and be-all of how a youth processes through the system sends the message that youth in the system are risky, needy people who have minimal chances to succeed. Imagine missing out on leveraging a positive relationship between a youth and their sibling because the risk and needs assessment identified “family criminality” as a contributing factor to their delinquent behavior. Under positive youth development, that relationship would be seen as an avenue for that youth’s success.
Risk and needs assessments carry with them a host of other cautions that while not strictly impediments to implementing PYD also do not smooth the way:
- Risk and needs assessments are an estimation of risk and need, not a set of certainties. A risk score does not automatically and definitively mean a young person will commit another offense.
- They may be objective, but they are not necessarily neutral and there is evidence that youth of color, in particular, are disproportionately found to have higher risk and need levels. For example, it is not uncommon to expect that youth of color will yield a higher risk level if the factors used to calculate that risk are factors that already disproportionately affect minorities (e.g., more likely to be arrested because of where police are deployed, ratcheting up their history of arrests or living in an impoverished or high-crime neighborhood).
- The results of a risk and needs assessment, whether they change or not, are not the same as youth outcomes. Because the results of risk and needs assessments can change and a risk or need level may be lowered, it doesn’t mean that they are indicators of a positive outcome for a young person. For example, a change in risk score from high to medium-high is not an indicator of a positive outcome for a young person in the same way as the completion of an academic grade or a move back to the family home.
Perhaps most important, risk and needs assessments are not one-shot assessments. They cannot be implemented once and then forgotten. Their use involves constant training, oversight and monitoring. Far too many jurisdictions implement risk and needs assessments and then don’t do effective oversight to make sure they are being used consistently or correctly. The danger is that young people who do not need to be confined are, youth who do not need services are getting them, and youth who do need services are not, all at the risk of the young person’s ability to succeed and the community’s safety.
All these challenges are not reasons to abandon risk and needs assessments, but are an opportunity to do it right, using PYD as a compass for implementation and oversight. Risk and needs assessments should be used within a system of decision-making tools, including the discretion of judges, case managers, service providers and other assessments (i.e. mental health, educational/vocational and functional assessments). Most importantly and to be consistent with PYD, decisions should only be made with the input of families and the youth themselves.
By leveraging a youth’s protective factors and ensuring that their treatment needs are connected to positive youth development components (e.g., positive experiences, positive relationships and positive environments), jurisdictions utilizing both these advances can strike a balance and a complementary approach that provides young people with the support and services they need. It is not a matter of weighing the risk and needs assessments with PYD, but rather using both effectively to further reduce the number of youth in confinement, help youth succeed and make communities safer.
Jennifer Carreon is a former policy researcher for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition’s Solutions for Youth Justice project. Amanda Petteruti is senior research associate at the Justice Policy Institute.
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Finish Line Youth Foundation, a division of Finish Line, Inc., offers two grant opportunities with a specific focus on wellness and athletics. Grant proposals from eligible non-profits should focus on delivering direct services to youth under the age of 18. Additionally, proposals must come from specific locations served by the Youth Foundation.
Interested organizations can take the Online Eligibility Quiz to determine if they meet the requirements. Finish Line, Inc. is an athletics retailer with more than 650 stores in 47 states.
Grants come in the form of “Founder” and “Legacy” grants ranging from $5,000 to $75,000. Founder’s grants are specifically reserved for emergency funding following a natural disaster or other extenuating circumstances that prevent a youth-oriented organization from delivering services. Legacy grants, ranging from $10,000 to $75,000, are awarded to qualified organizations in need of improvements or renovations to existing facilities.
Grant applications are accepted on a rolling deadline.