NEW YORK — Author and reporter Maia Szalavitz, who writes about substance use and related issues recently spoke with Youth Today and JJIE about her experience and her newest book: “Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction,” released in April. Here’s Szalavitz’s take on addiction and its complexities, from her own experience and in her own words.
A sin or a learning disorder?
There’s traditionally been two ways of seeing addiction. Either it’s a sin and you’re a horrible bad person and you are just choosing to be a hedonist, or it’s a chronic progressive disease. While I certainly believe addiction is a medical problem that should be dealt with by the health system, the way we’ve conceptualized addiction as a disease is not actually accurate.
I see addiction as a learning disorder, and I can’t imagine there would be any neuroscientists who would say ‘No, learning is not involved in addiction.’ You have to learn that a drug fixes your problem in order to crave it, otherwise your brain wouldn’t know what to crave. That sounds very stupid and simple, but a lot of complexity goes into that. The very definition of addiction that is agreed on by most researchers and the National Institute of Drug Abuse, for example, is that it’s a compulsive behavior that continues despite negative consequences.
So, that basically means addiction is a problem of punishment learning, you aren’t learning from punishment, which is this horrible irony, because if addiction were solved through punishment, which is what we try to do all the time, the condition actually wouldn’t exist as defined.
The learning that occurs in addiction is generally different from the learning that occurs in people when they learn math or something. Addiction is when you fall in love with a drug instead of a child or a lover, and the learning that takes part in that part of the brain is designed by evolution to get us to persist despite negative consequences to do what we need to do. The problem is when that gets misdirected to a drug, and then you can find yourself in some very negative and potentially deadly situations.
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The other reason I think learning is really critical in addiction is that learning is part of development, and we now know through neuroscience again that every mental illness, psychiatric condition, learning disorder, whatever, anything that’s really going on with the brain in some ways, has developmental components to it. So you don’t just wake up depressed from one thing, generally, there’s a whole pattern of things that go into it, your genes influence and the environment influences and your particular stage of development influences.
If addiction is misdirected love, how can that be redirected?
If addiction is misdirected love, and if addiction is compulsive behavior despite negative consequences, the thing people are going to need to get better is love, compassion and respect, not punishment.
Punishment by definition isn’t going to help. So what you need to do to help people to change and recover is to help them find different areas of passion and help them find better ways of coping. Because about 50 percent of people with addiction have a preexisting mental illness, and about two-thirds have had some type of severe trauma during childhood and they are not using to the point where they’re risking their lives because it’s fun. They’re doing something to help them cope.
And so in order for people to recover, we can’t just say ‘love is all we need.’ Love is great and it does help a lot of people, but a lot of people have things like depression or schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or other disorders, all of which will need to be addressed in order for people to stay in long-term recovery.
And so because addiction is a developmental problem, the developmental stage is important, things like employment are important, things like having a sense of purpose, meaning and hope are important, and this is why there’s been so many spiritual cures for addiction, because those things often give people a sense of meaning and purpose. The problem is that we have a First Amendment in the country, and you can’t impose — or you shouldn’t be able to impose a spiritual solution on people — and it doesn’t work. You’re either amenable to that or you’re not, and so this makes it a very complicated problem.
Punishment is not going to fix it.
We should not be putting kids in cages and hoping that is going to fix their psychological problems of any type. Incarceration is as useful for addiction as it is for diabetes — that is, not useful and potentially harmful, particularly for kids.
There’s a lot of data that shows that if a kid gets put into the system — and we’re talking about kids who are selected for the same exact crimes — are way more likely to recidivate than kids who just happen to get away with it or kids who are diverted from the system. And there’s lots of studies on that, cross-culturally. What we’re doing is causing harm now.
For kids who are incarcerated for good or for ill, obviously what we need to do if we’re stuck with that is to provide dignified, respectful, homeopathic care as much as is possible in that setting. You really do need to feel safe and comfortable and hopeful that your life will get better, because if you don’t feel that way, why wouldn’t you get high?
People have just created irrational ideas that we just need people to suffer the most extreme consequences and then they’ll get better, and this whole idea of hitting bottom is not the answer. It’s a great spiritual story of sin and redemption, but it’s not a medical scientific thing.
Let’s say I hit bottom and then I get into recovery and then I relapse, and so now I need a new bottom, and then I cover again and I relapse again. You can’t tell if I ever really hit bottom until I’m dead. So it’s not useful; it’s a retrospective concept that also has been used to do an enormous amount of harm, like suggesting we put kids into prisons or throwing them out of the house.
You know, this whole notion of tough love, where you just cut these people out of your life, completely contradicts what we know. And what’s horrifying about it, particularly with a child, a teenager, is if you put a teenager on the street, you are putting them at extreme risk of way worse outcomes than if they are home with you. And if a child is doing something that is harming other family members or harming you or just putting other people at risk in some way, yes, something needs to be done about that, but don’t think that cutting the kid out of your life will help the kid. That is a real mistake a lot of people make.
Parents really don’t want their kids hanging out with a ‘bad crowd.’ We want our kids with people who have good values and — as best a teenager can be — are doing well. When you put a kid into a system, you are basically putting them into a bad crowd. And I’m not saying the kids in the system are bad, they’re more deviant. And so you’re putting them in a situation like, ‘Wow, I smoked heroin,’ and ‘Wow, I did coke,’ and the kid is saying, ‘Wow, I only did pot, where can I get some?’ And so there’s this contagion of worse behavior.
So, what works?
If you’re worried about a kid and drug use, the safest, best thing to do is individual counseling or family therapy, none of which will expose kids to more deviant or problematic peers, and both of which are proven to be effective. At the very least, they won’t hurt. In a criminal justice setting, it’s very hard to create a therapeutic environment where people do feel safe, but the real important thing to do is to do your best to do that. Because the best outcomes that are seen for therapy intervention and for other psychological interventions is where the therapist really connects and the person really feels understood.
What about marijuana?
We absolutely should legalize marijuana. Marijuana is the least harmful psychoactive substance that we have, with the possible exception of caffeine. Since virtually any teenager you ask can tell you where to get marijuana anyway, it is unlikely that we could massively increase teen marijuana use.
I think, obviously, we really want to prevent kids from taking drugs. The best way to minimize this is to minimize harm. We’re never going to prevent every kid from doing something stupid during their teenage years. Your brain is primed to take risks; you’re primed to get into a social scene. [They’re going] to do things that we really don’t want them doing … so we need to reduce harm.
I don’t think there’s a single child who’s ever benefitted from being arrested for marijuana or for underage drinking. This does not solve the problem. It makes worse problems because a) it puts them into the system and b) it gives them a potential criminal record to have to deal with, and it can have consequences for school. The thing we want for all our kids is that they be connected with a learning community, and that they have strong social and familial relationships. If we can do whatever we can do to create that and to reduce bullying and to reduce the kind of pain and shame so many kids feel for so many reasons, that stuff is going to reduce addiction. It may not necessarily reduce use. But, again, 70 percent of my generation used and we created Steve Jobs and [Barack] Obama and [Al] Gore. We have to stop panicking over this stuff.
The worst thing you can do is to make kids so terrified that they’re not going to get into college or that they’re going to get thrown out of high school that when they overdose they aren’t going to call for help.
The most important thing to do is to make sure they stay healthy and alive. Again, that doesn’t mean we should tolerate the older kids teaching younger kids to use drugs ... what we want to do is to reduce the reasons people use compulsively and reduce the harm associated with specific drugs.
We have to think in terms of harm reduction instead of ‘We’re going to get rid of this whole thing,’ because drug use has been with humanity before humanity evolved into humanity. You can see that elephants will get drunk, nonhuman primates will enjoy it, the cats will go for the catnip — it’s built into our biology. So we can either accept that people will seek ways of consciousness alteration and seek to reduce harm, or we can bury our heads in the sand and create more harm with the way we’re trying to stop it.
What about our current drug laws?
The thing about our drug laws is that they’re not based on science. Science could never get you to make alcohol and tobacco legal and marijuana illegal. Only racism can do that. And that’s what we have. We have a system that was devised by racists to create racist ends.
And I know that sounds really extreme, but if you just look at the history, you will find Harry Anslinger [first U.S. commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics] going on about satanic swing and how reefer will make black people think they’re as good as white people — which to him, obviously, was a very horrible outcome. This is the basis of our drug laws. We have cocaine laws because they thought cocaine would make black people impervious to bullets — if only, right? It’s pseudo-scientific at best. You see this stuff in the New York Times in the early 1900s. It’s not obscure. So once you know the history of our drug laws, you have to say it is just based on nothing.
Do we really want to base our 21st century policy on what the colonialist preferred at a certain time in history, not at all based on health or what the preferences of different cultures might be? That’s just ridiculous. I think our drug laws need to be made scientifically, as best as possible, recognizing that values will always be part of that.
Beyond science, how did your background help form your views?
I don’t have kids, but I’ve often noticed when people first become parents they seem to completely forget their own adolescence and they start to, as their kids become teenagers, try to do the things that didn’t stop them themselves. And I jokingly frame this as: Your brain gets wiped of those memories when you become a parent.
I also had my own addiction to cocaine and heroin in my 20s. I knew that it was driven not by the things the drug workers were telling me; in fact, I couldn’t believe any drug information that was given to me by authorities because I knew from my own experience that it was wrong. So when you’re telling me that marijuana’s going to make me crazy and addicted, and it doesn’t happen, why would I believe you about the other things? And obviously there are greater risks associated with some other things. And the reason I ended up taking those risks, I eventually learned, was not because I was some horrible creature that is evil and bad and wrong, but because I was wired slightly differently, and I found that these substances allowed me to connect socially, allowed me to feel OK and not overwhelmed by my sensory issues and emotional dysregulation. So, having had that personal experience, I knew that a lot of the stuff that we say about these things is just wrong.
Having the personal experience made me understand a lot more. That’s not to say I can speak for everybody with addiction. I think there’s a huge range of experiences.
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At the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta, Michael Gandy, now 28, draws from personal experience as a young black teen. He talks to his mentor and “big brother” Austin Scee, 44, about police, mentorship and the community’s responsibility in the nationwide conversation concerning youth and law enforcement.
Scee: So, Mike, I thought given everything that’s been going on in our country, now might be a good time to revisit something that happened to you and to me in 2008 when you drove up to our house. [My wife] and I met you at the end of the driveway. You were driving your mother’s car, which was a beat-up old car with, I think, fairly heavily tinted windows. You had a police car trailing you as you drove up our street. You made an illegal U-turn in a four-way stop to park in front of our house —
Gandy: Not the best idea —
Scee: Not the best idea with a police car trailing you. I immediately noticed that the police car turned around aggressively, and [the officer turned his sirens on]. [The officer] got out of the car and starting walking toward your door. He looked serious, not like it was a routine traffic stop to me, so I said to him: “That's my brother. Officer, that's my brother.”
I could tell that he really couldn’t hear the words that I said ... It was clear to me the officer was nervous, and he had his hand in place on his gun as he approached your window. And all I could do was stand there with [my wife] and keep her calm and hope that you would be calm and manage your way through the situation.
From our perspective, we sat there watching: I could empathize with the police officer and all of the things that might be going through his head. I could empathize with you in terms of what might be going through your head. Although I’ve come to learn from you later that some of the things I imagined might be going through your head weren’t. You were just worried about getting a ticket.
That was a pretty meaningful experience for me ... Now with eight years having passed and the context we’re currently in, how do you reflect on it?
Gandy: Looking back I think context is really important. This was 2008, four years before this really was a fire across the country. Trayvon Martin was [killed in] 2012, and there have been several [other shootings] in the past couple of weeks and years.
For me, I was an athlete; I played football and basketball. I was mostly in the car with my mom or traveling with you somewhere. Honestly, I didn’t interact with police at all growing up ... I was intimidated. I would always double-check and make sure I had my seatbelt on. I’d always be doing the right thing, but I’d become nervous. They were, to me, seen as an authority. They were police. They were the law: people I should respect and follow.
So when I was pulled over, it wasn’t a sense of terror — I was anxious more than anything. I wasn’t sure quite what to do; I guess I knew why I was being pulled over. I remember trying to get out of the car and being yelled to not open the door. I really didn't understand that. I was parked in front of your house. I had the right to be there.
I remember just partly being confused of what happened and just unprepared for that. We never talked about race; it was not a big issue for us … I was never in a situation prior to that where race was a factor, so I was really torn on if I did something wrong, if I really deserved that kind of treatment or if it really was fair for him to react in the manner that he did …
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I think if [the shootings] of the past couple of years had happened before this incident, I would have reacted much differently. I think I would have been more aware, prepared and probably would have been more angry … just bothered by the scenario, which could have escalated ...
Scee: Yeah, I was just going to say if you had reacted in that [agitated] way, how might the situation have played out differently? You behaved the way I think I would have behaved when I was your age: I can’t afford a ticket; I don’t want points on my license. It was sort of a feeling of panic that you’ve broken a rule [as opposed to thinking]: ‘I might be in danger.’ If you had that type of reaction how might that have changed the situation for the worse?
Gandy: That’s a question I think about almost nightly or weekly whenever I’m lying in my bed: If I get pulled over today, am I going to react calmly? Am I going justify who I am, my education, my background? ... I have the right to look the way I look and act the way I act. I think it’s certainly not fair to be profiled like that, but it’s really tough knowing that this isn’t a fair place we live in, and people do have biases that they carry with them …
Scee: I can imagine how [my wife] would react if she were in the same exact position ... She would put herself in a lot of danger because she’s a 100-pound woman, she’s white ... She doesn’t put herself in any danger, but if she is challenged in these ways, she’s allowed to react. If I'm challenged in those ways, for the most part, I think I'm allowed to react [with frustration]. I find myself sometimes in random situations where somebody does challenge me in that way. I have to hold back the urge and the temptation to lash out and say, ‘That’s not fair.’ The repercussions for me to react that way if I weren't able to keep my cool are actually very minimal. For you they might be a lot [more serious].
The thing that occurs to me as I think about this broader challenge is for you it’s fine. You’re a mature adult. You’ve got an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree. You’ve got a good job. You understand the world in a fairly sophisticated way and you’re able to make those calculations in the moment: ‘I may want to react this way but I’m not going to.’ For a 15-year-old kid who doesn’t have access to mentors like [the Big Brothers Big Sisters program] provides or other programs and doesn’t have any other role models to look up to — other than possibly gang-related role models — the same expectation is put on them to react with calm and composure in that type of situation, and when they don’t the repercussions can be rather dramatic. I empathize both with law enforcement because those situations can legitimately be dangerous, and I empathize and sympathize with the kids [who] are put into those situations who haven’t had the benefit of a lot of the [mentorship] that you’ve had over the years.
Gandy: … Growing up I was taught you’re not supposed to be open and warm. You’re supposed to be able to fend for yourself, protect yourself … You [wear] not a frown but a look, you walk with a certain swagger, you carry yourself confidently with strength. Actually, I was with my little brother last weekend and we took a picture. In the first picture we took together, I’m holding a racket [because] we were playing tennis; and I’m smiling, huge smile, teeth are showing, and my little brother is standing there [with] a straight face. We had a great time, and I know we had a lot of fun. That’s how he carries himself … I think the environment that these kids are being brought up in really magnifies the situation —
Scee: So you’re saying the defense mechanisms that you learn as a young child — 5, 6, 7, 8 years old — on how to behave, how to walk, how to talk, and how to face challenges … what many children learn growing up is not how you react to things today —
Gandy: Right ...
Scee: — It’s a difficult thing to affect that type of change because those kinds of skills may be very important for that type of survival or whatever type of situation they find themselves in as children.
Gandy: It reinforces itself, it becomes habit … and you do it without noticing it. That really creates an adversarial role between the person and the officer, which really adds fuel to the fire.
Scee: … I’m a father now of a 7-year-old boy, and being a father is a really big responsibility. I never felt like I took on that responsibility with [you]. I never considered myself to be a father figure, more of a brother [figure]. But you said something to me at one point that surprised me a little bit, you considered our relationship more like a father-son relationship than a brother relationship. I’d be interested to know what you meant by that.
Gandy: You were the person that knew it all. Whenever I was in some kind of situation where I needed to figure out what to do, you were the person I trusted to provide advice … I think it goes to the age difference … I’ve always [put you] on this pedestal. You’re that guy on top of the mountain that I could look up to.
Scee: I can assure you that is not what being a father is like. [laughing]
Gandy: [laughing] That’s fair … You were just the guy that was always there [who] always coached me. Not having had a father figure in my life from the day I was born … until I met you I didn’t think about [having a father] at all. I didn’t think I needed [a father], I didn’t want [a father]. I assumed I’d figure out on my own, but as I became older, I had more questions on how to get through life … Having you as a resource, I assumed that’s what having a father was for; [it was] the relationship I had formed in my head.
Scee: I think I felt that way about my father once I was about 25. Before that, I kind of listened to what he said but mostly I fought [him] …
Gandy: I think it’s the level of [comfort] as well … [You] weren’t there every day —
Scee: — You never got to see my flaws —
Gandy: … I was comfortable [enough] with you to open up and be vulnerable but not comfortable enough to fight back. I think it’s a different [type] of relationship … I think what we have is really special what we have; I don’t know how to describe it.
Scee: Well, whatever this is, it’s special to me. I’m curious to know: What would your message be to kids 15 to 20 years old — that seems to be the sweet spot for when things can really go wrong. What would be your message be to that group? ...
Gandy: I don’t think you can tell a 15-year-old a message and really have it impact them. I think to really change a 15-year-old, you have to do what we did: You have to expose them to new experiences, you have to take them out of their environment, take them to new restaurants or to Disney World … just expose them to all the things that the world [can offer], and as they gain these kind of experiences, I think they become more knowledgeable …
When I was 15, if you had just told me to do something, I don’t think it would have had much of an impact … If you had called me over the phone and said, ‘Mike, you need to do better in school.’ I think that would have been another conversation that I would never remember.
Scee: What would be your message for police? Police have to deal with very dangerous situations. Their number one job at the end of the day is to get home safe in one piece [and] to be with their family for the most part. What would be your message be to them?
Gandy: I think they have a really tough job, and a lot of times they are in life or death situations, and I couldn’t imagine that feeling of having to go through that day in and day out. At the same time, I think they should put more of an effort into [understanding] the people they pull over, the people that they question … [Police should] get to know [the neighborhoods they serve], to understand their culture, the way they speak, their music and understand what a day in the life is like for them.
… If they continue to see [the issue] as an ‘us versus them’ [situation], they [will] see younger black males as objects that they’re afraid of and intimidated by [and] not afraid to shoot … If they can build empathy toward them by getting to know them and understanding who they are and their culture, I think [building those relationships] would have a large impact and help de-escalate a lot of very intense situations. I would ask they spend this Saturday afternoon getting to know someone different from them …
Scee: … What would be your message to young black men who could potentially start to see those [at-risk individuals] as role models?
Gandy: … I think it has to be more of a community thing where people have to figure out ways to bring everyone up [and] to speak to these guys who are causing trouble ... Maybe the community should do a better job working with police officers. I think you have more of an impact by helping the community identify people who are causing problems so that the police can do their job better [as opposed to] having everyone identified by police as troublemakers. I think that could be really helpful.
Scee: And to do that, it gets back to integration of [positive police presence] into the neighborhoods … If the police and the communities can work together, maybe [there will be] a good result.
Gandy: I think that would be amazing … as [people] know each other [more], they [will] care about each other more. I see it being more beneficial to both sides …
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Fines and fees imposed in juvenile court can drive youth deeper into the system and their families deeper into poverty, a new report says.
Every state imposes monetary penalties or costs on juveniles, a burden that hits families who are already struggling especially hard, both emotionally and financially, according to the report by the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia.
The costs can include fees to attend programs that are alternatives to incarceration or to have a mental health evaluation, charges for record expungement and restitution payments to victims.
When families can’t pay, the consequences may include sending a youth to a juvenile placement rather than an alternative community-based program, keeping a youth on probation longer than they otherwise would be or having their driver’s license revoked.
“This is a glaring example of justice by income,” said Jessica Feierman, associate director at the center and the report’s lead author.
The financial burdens of adult court have drawn increasing attention in recent years, but the juvenile system has gone largely unexamined, prompting the center’s researchers to wonder about the experiences of young people and their families. For the report, they examined state statutes and surveyed families and practitioners in most states.
“We got a resounding answer that young people all across the country are facing court debt. It’s harming them and their families,” Feierman said.
In a companion report, criminologists also zeroed in on how costs or fees affected recidivism in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.
The study, one of the first to look at the connection, found that financial penalties increased recidivism instead of deterring further offenses.
In addition, the report found a link between court-ordered financial obligations and racial disparities. Youth of color were more likely to still owe money after their cases were over, leading to further charges, longer probation or other punishments.
Feierman said the findings point to one way to curb racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system — by moving away from fines and fees that disproportionately affect some communities.
Gary Blume, a partner at Blume & Blume Law in Alabama, said he often sees families struggling with the financial problems the report highlights. One common scenario is that a juvenile on probation is hit with a fee that they can’t pay and has to remain on probation until they can.
During that time, they can be sucked further into the system because of curfew violations or other technical violations — which often comes with a new round of costs.
“It just creates a vicious cycle,” he said.
The consequences also aren’t uniform, Blume added. While some judges are mindful of the burdens families face, others are less so. And even when judges would like to waive fees or fines, some costs are mandatory.
Feierman said some of the fines and fees are set up as a punishment or a way to right a wrong, such as restitution payments. Others are a funding mechanism, a way to fill gaps in juvenile justice budgets that have been slashed.
All of them can be overwhelming to a family, even in small amounts, said lawyers and advocates across the country. And there are hidden costs, too.
A family may need to find the money for a class that’s an alternative to formal prosecution, but they’ll also need to come up with the money for transportation, said Mae C. Quinn, director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis.
“The cost of just doing business needs to be taken into account as well,” she said.
One fee that differs somewhat from the others are restitution payments that go directly to victims, Feierman said. Helping to make a victim whole may make sense, but even then, states should be aware of how much money juveniles and their families have and whether alternatives such as community service may be more fruitful.
“If a young person doesn’t have the money, it’s not going to help the victim and it’s not going to help the young person get back on track,” she said.
Financial obligations vary
The report looks at eight categories of financial obligations that states use: probation or supervision, informal adjustment or diversion, evaluation and testing, cost of care, court costs and fees, fines, expungement and sealing, and restitution.
All states impose restitution costs of some kind, but they vary in their use of costs across the other categories. Under state law, New York only uses restitution fees; Alaska and Vermont use restitution and cost of care fees. Others though, including Texas, Arkansas, Oregon, Kansas and Michigan, have fees or fines that fall into seven of the categories.
Most states and localities haven’t made any major moves to change their practices, but some examples exist, according to the report. In Alameda County, California, officials put a moratorium on fees and costs after a report showed the harm to families and a minimal financial benefit to the county. And Washington state lawmakers eliminated a variety of fees, allowed youth to petition the court for relief and gave judges discretion to consider a juvenile’s ability to pay restitution.
“Counties and states across the country should consider a similar approach — eliminating harmful costs, fines, and fees, and ensuring that any orders of restitution are reasonable and effectively balance the victim’s need to be made whole with the financial reality of youth and their families,” the report said.
Matt Conklin, a juvenile justice reform advocate at Kansas Appleseed, said he was struck by how many fines and fees Kansas applies. The group will be encouraging families to tell their stories and sharing the information with legislators to encourage reforms, he said.
“This is the signal for us, the wake-up call that can hopefully inspire us,” he said.
This story has been updated.
WASHINGTON — A proposed federal grant program aims to encourage cooperation between states’ juvenile justice and child welfare agencies, to help youth who encounter both systems.
The Childhood Outcomes Need New Efficient Community Teams (CONNECT) Act would authorize grants for collecting data on and developing policies to help so-called dual status youth.
“We need more information about who these young people are and the challenges they face so they have a fair shot at a path to success,” said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, who introduced the bipartisan legislation with Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa.
State agencies would apply jointly for grants from the Health and Human Services Department to collect data on the prevalence and characteristics of dual status youth, as well as to develop policies and practices to improve their lives, according to a summary of the bill.
Dual status youth often have experienced trauma and fare worse than their peers on educational outcomes, detention rates and behavioral health needs. Cities and states across the country want to address those needs but need more support to do so, said John Tuell, executive director of the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice, a leading source for research and policy development related to dual status youth.
“A growing number of jurisdictions are taking on the challenge, but this legislation would allow it to reach a remarkable critical mass,” he said.
The center has found that approximately two-thirds of the juvenile justice population has had some contact with the child welfare system in the jurisdictions where the center has projects.
Tuell said he’s thrilled to see bipartisan legislation on dual status youth and applauded the bill’s attention to data collection, resource coordination and collaborative leadership. While existing federal juvenile justice and education laws have included provisions for dual status youth, the bill is another important step forward that brings in the child welfare sphere through HHS, Tuell said.
“In addressing the needs of some of our most vulnerable children and youth it is essential that agencies and jurisdictions work together to better address the needs of these young people who find themselves involved with both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems,” Christine James-Brown, president and CEO of the Child Welfare League of America, said in a news release.
BALTIMORE — Less than 48 hours after the Caesar Goodman verdict left many in Baltimore longing for justice, the city was dealt another blow when popular rapper Lor Scoota, known and loved for giving back to the community, was shot and killed. Lor Scoota was heading home after a charity event when he was gunned down. The gunman remains at large.
“Part of what’s going on is the reality of Baltimore,” said Dr. Philip Leaf, Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence. “Large numbers under 25 are dying. In the Baltimores, Chicagos and other cities, this has become a way of life.”
“Here’s a guy who has a large following who respects his talent and all the sudden he’s dead,” said Leaf, who spoke with me over the phone a few days after Lor Scoota’s death.
Last week, I sat in Judge Barry Williams’ courtroom as he announced his verdict in the trial of Officer Caesar Goodman. Williams found Goodman not guilty of murder and other charges related to the death of Freddie Gray. The judge read the details of his verdict on each count, and ended the hearing by saying, “The verdict on all counts is not guilty.”
The room was packed with Gray’s family and friends, law enforcement and media. A few muffled groans could be heard, but no one seemed surprised. Many were in the courtroom throughout the entire trial and heard the judge questioning the prosecution’s case.
Immediately after the verdict, I rushed downstairs to get reaction from the crowd outside, where Baltimore residents, activists, a small army of media and a larger army of law enforcement officers were gathered.
I found that after two acquittals and a mistrial there’s an uneasy peace in Baltimore.
“I think the youth saw and heard of someone their age die and are concerned that those who caused the death are not being held accountable,” said Leaf.
For those outside the courthouse, the verdict on each count had trickled down slowly from the courtroom above. As I stepped outside, the crowd appeared angry, but not surprised. Someone in the crowd was repeating the judge’s final statement — “The verdict on all counts is not guilty.”
Gray, 25, died on April 19, 2015, one week after being chased, handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police van by Baltimore police officers. Prosecutors have alleged that Gray’s arrest for possession of a small knife was unjustified.
Chief Medical Examiner Dr. David Fowler wrote that Gray’s death could be “best certified as homicide,” likely the result of a “high energy injury” to his neck and spine that occurred while in the back of the police van.
Goodman was one of six officers charged in connection with Gray’s death. Two of the officers have been acquitted. Another officer’s trial ended in a mistrial. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby is under pressure from the police union to drop the remaining charges and at least two of the officers charged have filed defamation suits against her.
Former head of the NAACP, Ben Jealous, whose mother was from Baltimore, expressed his exasperation.
But while many residents I spoke with are not surprised by the verdict, they are frustrated. Not about to give up the fight to end police brutality, they want justice for Freddie Gray. Shortly after the verdict, I spoke with Baltimore resident Shana Ashby, 21, who was away at college when Gray was killed.
“People fear what they don’t know,” she told me, shouting to be heard over the helicopters circling overhead.
“A lot of my peers up at my college campus were saying some unsavory things about Baltimore,” she said, adding that the images shown on TV news reports were misleading.
“The one thing that really upset me, you know, the neighborhood where the riots happened, I lived there last year,” Ashby said. “What the media shows you, it’s what they want you to see, it’s very biased.”
As an example, she told me about a strip of row houses she said had been abandoned since the 60’s.
“They showed cuts of those row houses that were abandoned,” she explained. “Most of the people up at my school, they said ‘oh my God, that’s what you guys did to your houses?’ And I had to tell them no, that’s not what happened.”
Residents, she said, know those particular row houses were in distress long before the riots.
“Those houses should have been dealt with,” Ashby said.
Dr. Leaf says it’s not only distressed row houses that should have been addressed long ago. He says young people dealing with a myriad of issues.
“It’s about lives not being valued,” he said, adding that young people are faced with a myriad of interconnected issues, including housing, lack of employment in the community and a substandard school system.
Leaf said one positive outcome in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death and last year’s uprising is that both the community and the police have been trying to focus on solutions and the chance to restore their hometown’s image.
“One of the things that did happen is the uprising did cause a lot of people to realize they needed to do more,” he said, adding that Lor Scoota was one of those who stepped up to the challenge.
“But the news is the bad stuff, so it doesn’t get covered,” Leaf said.
It was a reminder to me and other journalists: We need to show up even when good is going on.
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Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of the same opportunities as other kids I knew. My parents struggled with mental health issues, and I was considered a “street kid.” I didn’t follow the rules, and no one expected a lot from me.
School was much of the same. With learning differences that made excelling academically virtually impossible, I focused on other things that I thought I was good at. This led me down a path of anger, crime and self-destruction. I was 14 years old, and I had given up on graduating high school.
I didn’t have direction in life until an amazing lady stepped forward. She was my best friend’s mom, and to this day I know her lovingly as “Mama Jackson.” With her help and the incentive of a warm meal, I started doing my homework and aiming for more in life. She was the first person to show me that I needed to hold myself accountable for the decisions I was making.
For more information, visit the JJIE Resource Hub
This relationship paved the way for me to graduate high school. With Mama Jackson’s support, I moved on into higher education and finished graduate school. Since the day Mama Jackson took me off the streets and under her wing, I have never doubted the power of a positive adult relationship.
What gave me these opportunities started with a relationship and became a journey to my own resilience breakthrough. I wanted to help students like me overcome their challenging life circumstances. I wanted to be that positive adult relationship and teach others to do the same.
I founded a program called WhyTry that has been delivered to millions of students worldwide. I wrote the book “The Resilience Breakthrough” to help the adults in these kids’ lives enhance their own resilience. I have worked for more than 20 years to show students they can be resilient, no matter what.
I firmly believe that resilience is not just something you’re born with — it’s something that can be taught to both children and adults. This breakthrough idea comes after years of working directly with students, but current research backs me up.
Ann Masten, Ph.D., directs the Project Competence Studies of Risk and Resilience at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development. Her work essentially shows that we can assume every individual has the capacity for resilience if provided with “assets” (like evidence-based programs and tools) and environments (like positive relationships at school) that help enhance it. This means that even when we can’t take away a child’s problems, we can equip that child to deal with them effectively.
Other studies also show that when students score higher on resilience measures, they have improved social skills, higher grades, a greater love of learning and better decision-making skills.
If this is true, then how important is it for us as educators, counselors and teachers to provide these life-saving resilience skills through the use of social-emotional learning (SEL) programs. Don’t students deserve a fighting chance to face their struggles head on?
In education, life circumstances get in the way of learning. Children face many adversities that detract from the messages we are trying to send. Difficulties at home, bullying, poverty, depression, negative friendships, hunger, divorced parents, abuse, neglect and gang violence all supersede school and common core lessons.
How can a child learn math when the world around him or her is falling apart? Kids don’t feel connected to the message. They don’t see the relevance to real life.
We have a social justice issue on our hands. During the next 20 years, many students will get access to the evidence-based SEL and resilience tools I’m talking about, but many more will not. According to Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), only three states have developed standards for social emotional learning programs. The skills of resilience should be at everyone’s fingertips. No kid should have to make their way through life without them.
Resilience, as I have come to define it, is the ability to bounce back when you have every reason to shut down — but you fight on! What profound knowledge that we can give this gift to others.
By incorporating social emotional learning programs into our regular lessons — whether that’s in schools, correctional facilities or counseling sessions — we help students receive the tools they need to develop their own resilience. The access to social emotional learning programs is the responsibility of public education influencers — one that we need to focus on 100 percent.
We have an obligation to give students not just the answers to test questions. We must give them the answers to life and how to navigate it successfully. I argue that a kid who has the skills of resilience can have an advantage over a Harvard graduate. If that kid knows how to “flip the switch” and view adversity as a fuel source, the challenges of life won’t affect that kid as deeply as they would for someone who’s lacking resilience, however academically successful.
Children who have not developed important social and emotional skills will break when things get tough. Children who ultimately overcome are those who have been taught how to thrive under any circumstances.
And isn’t that our ultimate goal?
Christian Moore is a licensed clinical social worker and founder of the WhyTry Organization. He is the author of “The Resilience Breakthrough — 27 Tools for Turning Adversity Into Action.” Moore is also a national speaker on the topic of academic and corporate resilience.
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BOSTON — DeAngelo Cortijo remembers the fear he felt as a young boy on the day his mother was lifted unconscious into an ambulance. He thought he would never see her again.
It was a moment that set off a yearslong struggle as he bounced between family and foster placements and eventually into the juvenile justice system. Along the way, he grew frustrated by the inability of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems to help him cope with the trauma he had experienced.
“I became angry, confused and gave up,” Cortijo said during the inaugural Dual Status Youth Symposium hosted last week by the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice.
Cortijo’s plight was a familiar one for the nearly 300 people in the symposium audience who gathered to discuss what’s working and what’s not for dual status youth.
Attendees sought ways to understand trauma, build better data collection and sharing systems, and create work cultures that encourage cooperation.[module type="aside" align="left"]
Cortijo wishes there had been a bridge between the two systems, one that allowed both sides to collectively understand him. He said information about abuse, mental health conditions and treatment plans should be shared to best help youth.
“The purpose is to ensure youth have consistent access to treatment and will reduce chances of being retraumatized — not to be used against the youth but to ensure the youth has the best opportunity at life,” he said.
The conference took place as those in the field are increasingly aware of the potential to improve outcomes for kids through collaboration between child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
Nationally, the resource center has found that in jurisdictions where its experts are working, approximately two-thirds of the juvenile justice population has had some contact with the child welfare system.
John Tuell, executive director of the resource center, said there’s still a long way to go to improve systems, especially when it comes to sharing data. But he’s cheered by how many people attended the conference, and their enthusiasm for making systems work better for youth.
“We really just need to grow this force of professionals that have the knowledge, the skills, the leadership to bring about the kinds of reforms that end up resulting in desired outcomes for youth,” he said.
Culture change[module type="aside" align="right"]
Keith Cruise, associate psychology professor at Fordham University
Officials who have created dual status programs said it’s critical for child welfare and juvenile justice officials to feel a shared sense of risk and responsibility as they navigate new programs.
“If something bad happens, we’re standing together. When good things are happening like they are now, we’re standing together,” said Laura Garnette, chief probation officer in Santa Clara County, California.
Melissa Blom, manager of the Children, Youth and Family division of the Outagamie County Department of Health and Human Services in Wisconsin, said that cementing a partnership involves a wholesale change in culture, not just new policies.
“You can put a lot of strategies into place in your organization, but if you don’t address the culture, culture eats strategy every time,” she said.
Managers must be role models who show how to have tough conversations across agencies, she added.
A role for judges[module type="aside" align="left"]
Sarah Cusworth Walker, research assistant professor at the University of Washington
Judges who have been involved in dual status reforms said their group also has an important role to play.
Geoffrey Gaither, magistrate in the juvenile division of the Marion County Superior Court in Indiana, said judges may not always be the experts when it comes to dual status youth and should listen carefully to representatives from each agency.
Judges also should be cognizant of the atmosphere they’re setting in the courtroom, which will set the tone for reforms, too, said Willie J. Lovett Jr., judge in the Fulton County Juvenile Court in Atlanta.
“If you’re the judge who jumps down people’s throats for mistakes, if you’re berating people and berating parents and those kinds of things, you create a brand. And then when you try to do an initiative, that brand follows you,” he said.[module type="aside" align="right"]
Margaret Samuel, a youth advocate
Blom said judges also should be a part of trainings, so they understand the research on adolescent brain science that’s driving reform. Judges should treat caseworkers and other agency representatives fairly and respectfully, while also holding them accountable, she said.
“Their decisions have a huge impact on not only families but on my staff. Treating staff with dignity is huge,” she said.
Douglas F. Johnson, a judge in Douglas County Juvenile Court in Nebraska, said judges should find ways to interact with child welfare and probation officials both on and off the bench, so that everyone understands how decisions are being made.
“It’s good not to go it alone,” he said.
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Research over the past several decades has established that youth exposure to violence is a widespread and significant problem. This is particularly true for youth involved in the juvenile justice system, as research has shown that up to 90 percent of these youth have histories of violence exposure, with many reporting multiple serious incidents.
Violence exposure as either victims or witnesses often lead to developing symptoms of trauma as a result. Given that the vast majority of juvenile justice-involved youth are likely to have extensive histories of violence exposure, it is safe to say that trauma is a critical issue facing this population.
Researchers and practitioners alike have long advocated for a trauma-informed approach to juvenile justice. While all juvenile justice youth are not necessarily exposed to violence, those who are exposed are at risk for further problems with delinquency and criminal behavior into adulthood. The treatment of trauma in these youth may prevent further involvement with the juvenile justice system and help to stop their progression into the adult criminal justice system.
For more information, visit the JJIE Resource Hub
Ohio’s Behavioral Health Juvenile Justice (BHJJ) initiative provides community-based treatment to juvenile justice-involved youth with behavioral health issues in lieu of incarceration. Community-based treatment has been shown to produce better behavioral health and justice-related outcomes.
An important aspect of the BHJJ initiative is a comprehensive and standardized data collection effort that focuses on both these areas of interest. These data are used to track individual needs and outcomes to better inform treatment planning as well as providing opportunities for program evaluation and needs assessment for each participating county. For us, this effort has helped develop a wealth of data over the last decade that has provided much-needed insight into the behavioral health of youth involved in the juvenile justice system.
Along with my co-authors Joseph Galanek, Jeff Kretschmar and Daniel Flannery, we used data from the BHJJ initiative to illustrate how the treatment of trauma can have a positive effect on this population in a recently published article in Social Science & Medicine. We first examined the importance of neighborhoods on both violence exposure and trauma.
As we had expected, youth living in a neighborhood that has concentrated poverty and disadvantage are more susceptible to violence exposure. While poverty in and of itself does not necessarily lead to increased trauma symptoms, the increased risk for violence exposure puts youth living in disadvantaged neighborhoods at risk for trauma.
We then examined the impact of trauma on social relationships. While previous research has emphasized the protective nature of social relationships on trauma, little attention is paid to the role of trauma in forming and maintaining those relationships. For youth who are exposed to violence as either witnesses or victims, positive social relationships with family, peers and other adults can have an insulating effect from the violence around them.
However, trauma can often be an impediment to building and maintaining relationships. From this perspective, the problem becomes cyclical. To mitigate the impact of exposure to violence on trauma, social relationships are important, however trauma is what is preventing youth from accessing this protective resource.
It is important to remember that many youth involved in the juvenile justice system are exposed to violence and trauma on an ongoing basis. Many of these youth live in disadvantaged neighborhoods where they are more likely to witness and be victims of violence. These youth are particularly at risk for trauma symptoms, therefore, it is important to provide these youth with treatment to address the trauma and the skills to develop the resources to mitigate the effects of violence exposure.
While macro-level interventions to stabilize neighborhoods are necessary and should be part of the bigger picture, helping youth to build and maintain social relationships that help them become more resilient to violence exposure and trauma is an immediate area of need for the juvenile justice and other social service systems. Our data show that in order to build resiliency, it is necessary to first address trauma symptoms.
Effective screening and assessment are important initial steps in addressing the behavioral health needs of juvenile justice youth. Proper assessment can help identify the treatment needs of youth as they enter the system so that treatment can be better targeted to their needs.
Many juvenile justice systems, however, fail to adequately assess youth for trauma and other behavioral health needs. Many tools exist that measure violence exposure and trauma but not all have been tested and validated to be appropriate for a juvenile justice population. Ultimately, early and effective assessment is vital to understanding the depth of the problem, identifying the needs of each individual as they enter the system and providing treatment to those in need. And, as our data illustrate, the effective assessment and treatment of trauma helps to provide youth with the resources necessary to minimize the effects of violence exposure and ultimately can help reduce the likelihood of continued involvement with the justice system.
Fredrick Butcher, Ph.D., is a research associate with the Begun Center for Violence Prevention and Research in the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. His research on violence exposure and trauma in juvenile justice-involved youth has appeared in a number of journals in a number of social science fields including criminal justice and social work.
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LOS ANGELES — Moriah, then 14, woke up to burns on her body one night along with physical evidence that she had been raped. She had been invited to a party the night before by someone she considered a friend.
She eventually came to realize that she had almost been looped into a human trafficking scheme. This event, among many other traumatic events, affected Moriah mentally, physically and emotionally.
“I just felt neglected,”Moriah said of her childhood.
When she was growing up her father was in and out of prison, and she turned to other kids in her neighborhood for comfort. She says she felt like she had no protection and felt lost. While she was never officially in a gang, she did hang around friends who were gang members when growing up in Fullerton, California. Many of those neighborhood friends had problems of their own.
With them Moriah started using drugs and soon struggled with addiction, she said. In high school she got hooked on methamphetamines. On one occasion, when she and her friend were trying to come up with money for drugs, they decided to steal a car.
Two days later, she was arrested for grand theft auto and spent eight months in a juvenile corrections facility. After getting out,Moriah was determined to turn her life around, but soon she started using again. She became friends with gang members and started stealing cars again for drug money. When she was 17, she was sentenced to Los Padrinos and then Camp Scott.
Girls like Moriah who experience high degrees of trauma are statistically more likely to act out than kids with fewer childhood traumas. As a result, they are also far more likely to wind up in the juvenile justice system, according to a growing body of research.
When girls come in contact with the justice system, however, new reports show it is usually for acts that present little or no threat to public safety, and for behavior that’s largely a reaction to “abuse, violence and deprivation.”
Yet, while girls are disproportionately pulled into the system, new juvenile justice reforms rarely focus on the specific needs of troubled girls or on the underlying reasons they landed in the justice system in the first place.
For example, when Moriah recalls her experience at Camp Scott, what stands out to her the most from the group counseling sessions she was encouraged to attend was how many girls in the camp revealed they had been sexually abused, or were in camp for being sexually trafficked, or both.
“I thought it was really crazy,” she said. The sex-trafficked teenagers “were basically brainwashed by people who these girls thought were their boyfriends.”
Issue of trauma in juvenile justice system
The number of girls in the U.S. juvenile justice system has been rising steadily in the last decade. Trauma is now increasingly being recognized as a driving factor for pushing girls into the system.
According to a study by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), youth in the juvenile justice system have been exposed to significantly higher rates of traumatic childhood events than youth with no contact with the justice system, with rates of trauma exposure ranging from 70 to 96 percent.
The NCTSN study also shows that girls in the justice system have experienced even higher rates of victimization than their male peers.
Nationally, more than one-third of girls in the system have a history of sexual abuse, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Similarly, a 2014 study of 64,329 kids involved in the justice system in Florida found that 31 percent of the girls surveyed reported having been sexually abused, 41 percent reported physical abuse and 84 percent reported family violence as opposed to 7 percent, 26 percent, and 81 percent for boys in those same categories.
There are no definitive statistics showing the degree to which girls in the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles have experienced high degrees of trauma.
But a unique program called the Girls Health Screen, which has been running as a pilot program in one of LA’s juvenile probation camps for girls, reports that one-third of the girls tested report such “urgent health needs” as a recent history of sexual assault, a chronic sense of hopelessness and recent suicidal thoughts and actions.
The Los Angeles County Probation system as a whole has made some effort to include trauma-informed programs in its juvenile camps — both the boys’ camps, and the two facilities catering solely to girls. Probation officials hope that a brand-new boys camp facility due to open next year, Camp Kilpatrick, will provide a model of therapeutic and rehabilitative programing.
However, a prominent report released last year by the National Women’s Law Center suggests that, both nationally and locally, the mental and emotional health concerns specific to females are largely ignored by juvenile justice systems — including LA’s system. And girls suffer as a consequence.
Still, the LA-based Girls Health Screen is one promising new program that many local advocates hope will make a difference in outcomes for the county’s justice-involved girls.
The value of screening
The Girls Health Screen (GHS) is a gender-responsive medical health screen that assesses the physical and emotional health needs of girls entering juvenile justice facilities. It was developed by the Girls Health and Justice Institute and its founder Leslie Acoca.
The GHS, given on a laptop, requires girls in camp to respond to 117 questions that cover multiple areas of their lives. According to Acoca, the GHS is designed to be non-intimidating. The questions are worded simply, and require only Yes/No answers. Even the look of the test, which includes inviting graphics, is designed to prevent an institutional appearance. Because of the test’s design and the way it is administered, said Acoca, girls feel able to share their experiences privately, without feeling that they are being judged. Even the act of simply taking the GHS has its own therapeutic effect, she said.
Since 2012, Acoca said, approximately 400 girls at Camp Scudder, the second of LA County Probation’s two camps for girls, have been given the health screen. But the GHS has yet to move beyond the pilot stage in LA, due to bureaucratic roadblocks and lack of funding, she said. All that is due to change this year thanks to a much-needed $20,000 cash infusion that LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl has managed to shake free from the county’s probation department.
“We are hoping the $20,000 will allow the program to roll out in all the juvenile halls in LA,” said Kuehl, who is one of the program’s strong supporters. The idea, she said, is that the information will connect girls to programs and health services they need while in camp or in juvenile hall, and that the information, while private, will also follow those same girls as they return to their communities, so that they can also be connected to needed programs when they come out of lock-up.
“The ETA for the Girls Health Screen to be ready to screen every incarcerated girl in LA is June/July of 2016,” Acoca said.
Girls and Gangs: Camp to community
When Moriah was at Camp Scott, she said there were a number of programs that helped her work through her emotional issues, including writing workshops and counseling groups. One of the programs she said influenced her the most was run by an organization called Girls and Gangs.
“I just loved the support,” Moriah said. “The impression [the Girls and Gangs staff] gave me was that they genuinely cared.”
Girls and Gangs provides rehabilitation and transition services for girls who become involved in the juvenile justice system. Their model, which operates under the nonprofit umbrella of the Youth Policy Institute, focuses on pairing girls with mentors starting from their stay at the probation camps all the way through re-entry into their community. According to the Girls and Gang staff, matching each girl with a caring adult makes the program effective and positive for young women transitioning from camp to home.
Moriah was paired with mentor Vanessa Gutierrez while she was still in camp. Then, after Moriah left Camp Scott, she explained, Gutierrez helped her with getting clothes and generally provided support.
“I just got so much support from her and she did so much for me. I didn’t really know why,” Moriah said.
According to Ana Aguirre, program director of Youth Policy Institute’s YouthSource & Education Department, Girls and Gangs works because it encourages girls to share their painful experiences in a safe place where they don’t feel judged.
“They want to be heard. They want to express how they feel,” Aguirre said. “They’re carrying a lot of weight,” yet they often don’t understand the emotional weight they carry. “They might not understand that it’s trauma” they are dealing with, “but we’re able to identify that this was a traumatic experience that has shaped who [they] are.”
The next step in helping the girls heal, Aguirre said, is to ask them, “How can we use this to make you grow and make you stronger?”
Belinda Walker, who serves on the board for Girls and Gangs, said boys in the juvenile justice system have a high degree of trauma too.
Yet, in her observations about the nature of girls’ trauma, Walker echoed what Moriah and Acoca had described. “If you were to drop into any girls’ probation camp,” she said, “you would find that 70 to 90 percent of those girls have been sexually abused in their early adolescent years by trusted adults. In the conversations I have had with probation officers, they’ve said that every girl [they work with] has experienced some form of trauma or abuse. It can be emotional, physical or sexual.”
The broader view
Discussions surrounding trauma and trauma-informed practices are relatively recent, according to Dr. Marleen Wong, the associate dean for field education at the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California, and a nationally known expert in the field of psychological trauma and recovery.
All service sectors have begun looking at this issue of trauma and how to factor it into their services, she said.
“You can look at the national scene and see the Department of Labor talking about traumatized environments. How do you create a trauma-informed workplace? U.S. Department of Education is talking about trauma-informed schools,” Wong said. “Health and Human Services is talking about trauma-informed services. This is how our research is coming into its own, forming the foundation and the basis for thinking about ways to change the way we provide health and human services.”
A landmark legal settlement for which Wong served as the subject matter expert is helping to precipitate one of the most significant changes to how schools treat trauma.
In May 2014, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the Compton Unified School District by Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm, and Irell & Manella LLP. The suit was filed on behalf of five students and three teachers, charging that the school system had not properly educated students who have experienced repeated trauma and violence. Their argument was based on research showing that exposure to trauma and repeated violence harm a child’s abilities to learn and function in school properly.
“All of the studies show that the kids with PTSD can’t concentrate because they have flashbacks, they think constantly about their safety, they never feel safe, they’re always anxious,” Wong said. “It’s generalized anxiety, even when they’re not in a dangerous situation.”
In October 2015, U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald ruled that students who experience traumatic events while growing up in poor, turbulent neighborhoods could be considered disabled. (However, this does not mean any exposure to trauma can guarantee a child will have a disability and be afforded the protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act.)
The settlement sought mandatory trauma-informed training for teachers, adequate mental health and counseling services, and classes teaching students how to cope with anxiety and their emotions.
According to Wong, looking at how trauma affects children is a way to address why some schools may have huge dropout rates and how those rates factor into the school-to-prison pipeline.
“It’s time for us to step up in the right way,” Wong said.
On Nov. 3, 2015, the National Crittenton Foundation published a toolkit to help identify children’s exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
Crittenton’s mission is to help girls and young women affected by violence and adversity become stronger, healthier and more engaged. The foundation has published a series of studies and reports relating to girls and trauma (the most recent in September 2015).
They find that girls and young women in the justice system have disproportionately high ACE scores, but are often marginalized and overlooked by that same system. The consensus is that young girls should not be given the same treatment as boys if they are to successfully heal from emotionally toxic experiences of their childhood and adolescence, according to Crittenton.
As for the Girls Health Screen, once Leslie Acoca gets the GHS to all the girls entering LA County’s juvenile facilities, she intends to take it nationwide.
Supervisor Kuehl said she is very aware that LA’s juvenile facilities are not doing all that is needed for girls.
“One of the interesting things I heard from women who I’ve spoken to who’d been released from prison, who had also been in juvenile camps, and then had offended again as adults,” Kuehl said, “there were much better programs in prison for women than they ever had in camps, so they felt like they had a better chance to turn their lives around in prison. That really told me that we’re not seeing a lot of what is possible to really help our girls.”
Accoca went still further. “It’s impossible to do trauma care if you don’t know what trauma a girl has experienced,” she said. “With the level of injury we see with incarcerated girls, both emotional and physical, it is immoral to do anything less than identify those injuries so we can address them.”
Nevertheless, for Moriah, getting some of the proper care and guidance she needed through Girls and Gangs and her own mentor has helped her move forward. She is currently working full time and has plans to go back to school. She is also an ambassador to the Road to Success Academy at Camp Scott.
“A lot of girls got the same extended hand, but I grabbed it,” Moriah said. “You could have all the same things but if you’re not ready, it’s not going to happen.”
Moriah has come to realize that admitting the effects of trauma is not easy. Now that she has taken her own concrete steps into a better future, Moriah’s advice to girls is this: “Never quit on yourself. Your past does not define you.”
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.
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They’re labeled thugs, treated like throwaways and classified by some as “superpredators”: teenage boys and girls who seek sanctuary in gangs, commit violent crimes and end up in the criminal justice system. Not only are they physically locked up, but these children are caged in emotional turmoil.
Childhood friends, teachers, school counselors, social workers, lawyers and judges are all baffled as to why these kids would choose a lifestyle where they risk getting shot and killed. Analyzing the family dynamics and psyches of these teens is important, yet what is paramount is how we can alleviate their suffering and guide them onto a path toward equanimity and peace.
All these children entered the world as pure, innocent beings. By the time they grab our attention, they have resigned themselves to the fact that the world is unsafe and cruel, that it is “dog-eat-dog” and that kindness, compassion, empathy and forgiveness are all signs of weakness.
These lost souls have placed themselves in a subculture wherein they are constantly under peer pressure to prove their loyalty and worthiness by committing crimes and acting out violently. Greed, hatred and delusions (in the form of perceived threats, insults and disrespect) are synonymous with gang life. These same characteristics and beliefs were cited by the Buddha thousands of years ago as the root causes of evil and suffering.
Reaching out and connecting with these young gang members is challenging due to their distrust of people and an oath of secrecy they have taken. However, those of us who serve as teachers, guidance counselors, therapists, mentors, foster parents, probation officers and health care professionals have opportunities to make a positive impact. Following are some of the ways that we can help heal and guide these troubled teens:
Listening and planting seeds
Lecturing or browbeating will not work; taking pity on them, instilling fear, enabling or speaking negatively about their associates or gangs will not be effective. Their street smarts have trained them to smell a hustle and virtually everyone they have ever trusted have disappointed, abused or outright abandoned them.
We can reach these teens by genuinely caring, listening and exercising patience, which acknowledge and validate them as worthwhile human beings. They have encountered very few individuals in their lives who truly cared about them without conditions, mixed messages or ulterior motives.
The attitude and behavior that landed these children in trouble in most cases resulted from one (or more) of the following: inadequate care, poverty, traumatic experience, physical and emotional abuse, mental illness, learning disability or exposure to negative influences. Helping them get in touch with their true nature and awakening their loving-kindness that has been buried deep inside will be a long process and involve planting healthy, positive seeds.
What we teach and expose them to now may not have an immediate impact, but it can begin to alter how they feel about themselves and others. These include those who harmed them as well as the people they hurt. These seeds have the potential of germinating and opening their closed hearts.
Serving as good role models for them at all times is imperative; that means walking the talk. Introducing these offenders to former gang members who have transformed their lives and leading productive, peaceful lives can provide inspiration. Former gang members who are still serving time and have embraced a spiritual practice can have a positive influence as well.
When it comes to rules and regulations, it’s usually best to establish clear, firm boundaries, differentiating between acceptable and inappropriate behavior — as long as it is communicated and maintained in a consistent, compassionate manner. These teens may complain about rules and structure, but there’s a part of them that appreciates knowing what to expect and when. It’s worth pointing out that they had no problem embracing gang rules — taking immense pride in them.
Up until now, these children have dealt with anxiety, stress, confusion, intrusive thoughts, conflicts, anger, sadness and other overwhelming emotions primarily by using drugs and alcohol to numb their pain or by acting out in destructive ways. We can help them develop healthy coping mechanisms by teaching them how to deal with conflicts, identify triggers, to be conscious of rising emotions, to express themselves by communicating their needs and to develop mental discipline through exercises such as meditation.
Mindfulness training can enable these youths to intercept negative thoughts as well as to control their emotions, especially when they’re incarcerated. It will strengthen their focus and attention, and help them attain equanimity, perhaps for the first time in their lives. The skills they develop from practicing mindfulness can serve as the foundation for healing and awakening their loving-kindness.
Their egos, along with stereotypes regarding meditation, may cause them to perceive engaging in it as being passive and weak, but the activity can be presented as a powerful tool. Informing these gang members that meditation enabled imprisoned monks to withstand inhumane torture — thus prevailing over their captors — puts the practice in a context that they can appreciate.
Encouraging these young warriors to write about their families, upbringing, struggles and other personal experiences provide a creative outlet for them to express their feelings and emotions. It serves as a catharsis. For these compositions, the emphasis is on content — not spelling and grammar.
In a group setting, it’s important to set up guidelines whereby only positive and constructive feedback is exchanged. This ensures a safe, nonjudgmental environment for each individual to write and share their work. It’s not unusual for a gang member to describe in his essay the details that led to his incarceration and have his peers express, out of concern, how they believe he is being exploited. This is another example of positive seeds being planted.
Cultivating compassion and patience
Encouraging hardened teens to cultivate compassion for themselves and others can be difficult, as this virtue is often regarded as a sign of weakness. One program that has proven to be effective with incarcerated juveniles is having them care for abandoned dogs and cats. Most of them can easily identify with vulnerable animals. As they bond with these lovely creatures, it connects these youths with their true nature, drawing out qualities that have been suppressed, such as kindness, gentleness, patience, love and compassion. Slowly but surely they remove their emotional Kevlar and begin to accept how worthy and special they are.
We would be hard-pressed to find a single one of these troubled teens who’s had a happy childhood. Most skipped their boyhood and girlhood altogether; instead, they were forced to grow up quickly as a survival response.
Yet, within each of them is a wounded inner child who has been crying out for help, albeit in negative and destructive ways. If we want them to be accountable for their actions, to feel remorse, to make amends, to heal and to transform their lives, this requires all of us to work together as a sangha (community).
Bill Lee is an author, a practicing Buddhist and a former gang member. His memoir, “Chinese Playground,” was written to provide guidance and support for troubled youth. He counsels incarcerated teens. He can be reached at http://about.me/bill.lee_author or http://chineseplayground.com.
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