JMATE 2012: Bad Kids or Hurt Kids? The Compelling Need for a Trauma Informed Juvenile Justice System

Starting in 2010, there's been a policy shift around drugs, addiction and treatment, and it could not have come at a better time, explained David Mineta (deputy director of demand reduction at ONDCP) at yesterday's JMATE plenary. More Americans are dying from drug use than from any other kind of accidental death, including car crashes and gun wounds. "This is a public health problem," stressed Mineta, before explaining that the ONDCP is prioritizing prevention, treatment and diversion programs in its forthcoming 2012 national drug control strategy. [editor's note: we'll share this as soon as it's out]
"Addiction can be overcome and recovery is absolutely possible," said Mineta. "And we need to make sure our young people have the brightest future possible. It's personal for us."  
Following Mineta's moving keynote on addiction and prevention measures, Kris Buffington addressed the issue of trauma and its impact on adolescents.
Buffington explained that traumatic experinces can substantially impact biological, psychological and social development in youth. And unfortunately, symptoms associated with exposure to traumatic events are often misinterpreted as indicating a young person has a behavioral disorder. 

"Trauma has the potential to overwhelm a person's ability to cope," explained Buffington. In particular, witnessing domestic violence is a very traumatic experience for a child because s/he is powerless to stop the situation. The younger a child is when s/he first experiences trauma, the less s/he will be able to cope and the greater the likelihood s/he will have developmental problems. (Note: trauma affects brain size and processes, but not intelligence.)
92% of incarcerated teens have experienced one or more traumas during their childhood. Many have known someone who was killed and have seen violence happen in their communities. A recent study of kids in the juvenile system, found that they had higher rates of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than military veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. When a young child is traumatized, s/he learns that aggression is a vital response and that s/he cannot survive without it.
One important realization for those working with troubled teens, is that often youth who disrespect adults and act out against them, "have seen adults behaving badly." So it's necessary to learn why the child is acting out and what his/her traumatic reminder is. One teen Buffington worked with lashed out at a foster mother when she came up behind him to hug him. Without even thinking, he swung his arm, knocking her down and breaking her arm. He was immediately removed from the home and was distraught that he had hurt an adult he cared about. But what the foster mom didn't realize, was that he had been severely sexually abused as a child, with most of the attacks occuring from behind and involving being held down. So his instinct was to protect himself - and his traumatic reminder was having someone approach him from behind. Buffington explained that traumatic reminders can be any person, place, thing, situation, sight, sound, smell, taste, etc that reminds the person of the traumatic events s/he has experienced. They set off an automatic alarm reaction as a way to protect the traumatized person. 
We must do something to address these trauma rates, stressed Buffington, "every child deserves the best chance to develop successfully." 

Liz Wu is a Digital Accounts Manager at Prichard Communications, where she oversees digital outreach for Reclaiming Futures and edits Reclaiming Futures Every Day. Before joining the Prichard team, Liz established the West Coast communications presence for the New America Foundation, where she managed all media relations, event planning and social media outreach for their 6 domestic policy programs. Liz received a B.A. in both Peace and Conflict Studies and German from the University of California at Berkeley. She tweets from @LizSF.

Updated: February 08 2018