Using Trauma Information to Help, Not Hurt, Juvenile Justice-Involved Youth
Date:  08-08-2014

Trauma can unnecessarily lead children and youth into the child welfare or criminal justice system
Reclaiming Futures reported that The Juvenile Law Center, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, issued a new a report Trauma and Resilience that details how “systems and services’ can play an important role in helping children and families surmount trauma, thereby providing an effective way to reduce the violence which has permeated our culture.

The report discusses how the system can further harm traumatized youths:

(1) Judges may interpret a youth’s trauma history or symptoms to mean that the youth is too damaged to be safe in the community, or that a parent is too damaged to take care of his or her child.

(2) Discussions about trauma can exacerbate racial biases. In both the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, children of color are overrepresented because of persistent differential treatment along lines of race. Addressing trauma without discussing racial biases risks incorrectly implying that youth of color are system-involved because of family problems rather than system biases.

(3) A focus on trauma can draw attention away from important jurisprudence on adolescent development. Unlike adolescent development, in which legal theory applies categorically, research on trauma relies on distinctions based on a youth’s previous experiences, and his or her reactions to those experiences.

The report also lists “advocacy solutions” that the juvenile justice and child welfare systems can implement:

(1) The juvenile justice and child welfare systems themselves can cause harm, traumatization, and retraumatization in youth. Research on trauma can support legal arguments to address harmful practices within public systems.

(2) Information about the trauma histories and symptoms of youth are already regularly introduced in courts—attorneys need the information to make conscious decisions about whether to highlight or underplay the information, and how best to characterize it through the lens of resilience.

(3) Trauma symptoms are often misdiagnosed as other, hard-to-treat mental health problems. This can lead to inappropriate mental health treatment, including psychotropic medication; to youth or family failure to comply with treatment; and to harsher legal consequences

Read Trauma and Resilience: A New Look at Legal Advocacy for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System.