By Cathy M. Weiss
and Timene Farlow
When Latanya was 12, she stole a bike that was left near a neighborhood store. She was adjudicated delinquent and, nearly four years later, is still a part of the juvenile-justice system. She has been shuttled back and forth among detention centers, residential programs, and a few community-based programs. And, like 95 percent of the youth across the country who are confined in residential facilities, she did not commit a violent crime.
Initially, both she and her mother were hopeful that Latanya could get help with the problems she'd been dealing with for years. But they now realize the system is not prepared to address the real issue: trauma.
Latanya was sexually violated when she was a very young child. Later, she witnessed her mother's near-fatal stabbing at the hands of her boyfriend. Latanya also grew up in one of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods, where gunfire and other forms of violence are commonplace. She was one traumatized young lady.
Yet none of the programs that she was sent to ever inquired about her trauma, let alone addressed it. No one taught her how to cope with the overwhelming distress she feels when she thinks back to the times she felt unsafe and powerless. Nor has she learned how to complete an employment application, navigate the public transportation system, or prepare a simple meal.
With so few trauma-responsive programs in the juvenile-justice system, there are many children like Latanya whose needs go unmet, and some whose conditions are worsened by the insensitive care they receive. In addition, too often the system fails to provide a quality education for the young people in its care. Many 18-year-olds, then, leave the system without life skills or a high school diploma.
To address these concerns, more than 150 people recently began a conversation about assisting traumatized youth at a symposium sponsored by the Stoneleigh Foundation titled "From Risk to Resilience: What Youth Need to Thrive."
There was agreement across the board that the system needs fixing - and fast. As a first step, we believe delinquent children should be confined only if their behaviors compromise public safety or if they are a danger to themselves or others. For stealing a bike, Latanya was sent to a program many miles away from her family. This distance compromised the already strained family relationships she was desperate to hold on to, and resulted in limited visits during a time when she needed them most. This practice counters accepted research, which has correlated strong family connections with successful outcomes for youths and adults released from prison.
Additionally, our system and the service providers we contract with must develop the capacity to be trauma-informed and educationally sound. No child should ever leave care more traumatized and less educated than when she arrived. And none should be jeopardized by a system that failed to be trauma-informed.
For young people who do need to be confined, Philadelphia officials must ensure that they receive trauma-responsive rehabilitation. We can start by:
Keeping troubled youth close to home so family members can take part in therapeutic processes and remain solidly connected to them. Missouri led the way on developing this best practice, and both New York City and Chicago have adopted the policy, with improved outcomes for youth. One day these young people will go home, and our work must lay the groundwork early for a successful return.
Completing trauma assessments for youth each time they transition from one level of service to another, or from one program to another, including admission to a detention facility.
Requiring trauma training and responsiveness for all providers serving children in the child-welfare and juvenile-justice system, whether in secure or nonsecure detention settings.
Promoting real-time data sharing and communication among law-enforcement and justice agencies to ensure collaborative care.
Ensuring service providers offer life-skills training along with quality education.
Placing emphasis on re-entry work, with planning beginning the day a youth is placed in out-of-home care.
Instead of seeing troubled young people as "prisoners," best practice suggests that we see them as "patients." In the medical world, care managers know that treating a patient requires knowledge of the individual's past and a plan for the future. Such continuity of care saves lives. It's time we apply that same level of care to traumatized young people.