It Takes a Community to Heal Traumatized Youth, and Formal and Natural Mentors Have a Part to Play

By Cathy Anthofer-Fialon, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

Juvenile justice is a delicate dance between the court, families and the community. Juvenile justice began as a recognition that youth/children are different from adults and benefit from the rehabilitative nature of the court system.

However, communities can demand youth be “taught a lesson” and pressure may be placed on courts to move toward detention placements over community-based treatment/rehabilitation. Accountability for a crime is necessary, but in the context of teaching and the spirit of rehabilitation. How patient should a community be? What about the youth who has received all the resources a probation officer has to offer, but still keeps offending?

I have watched probation officers throw up their hands, looking exasperated. I too have expressed frustration when a youth continually escalates, as if the youth believes all suggestions, orders, motions, detention are laughable. And then, I have to stop myself and remember the youth as a small child. What accountability did the court, families and the community have then with this youth? Could experiences as a small child be the cause of the current delinquency?

Delinquent behavior is far more likely in a youth who has experienced trauma. This is not an excuse from good behavior, but a likely cause that must be addressed for the youth to move forward in a noncriminal life.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study, conducted in the late 1990s by Dr. Vincent Felitti and Dr. Robert Anda, illustrated how childhood trauma impacts a child well into adulthood. In a study conducted in Florida it was documented, “Half of the Florida juveniles reported four or more ACEs, compared with 13 percent of those in the CDC’s ACE study.”

When a child is continually in an environment of neglect or abuse the child’s brain, which experiences rapid development from birth to 5 years old, develops to respond to danger —  continually. The ability to trust an adult does not exist. A neglected or abused child who trusts the offending adult is at great risk, so the brain programs itself to not trust.

Later in life, when a probation officer or a judge enters the picture to help and encourages the youth to trust, it is not possible until the brain is reprogrammed, until the trauma is healed. Imagine what would have happened if our cave-dwelling ancestors did not run or fight when confronted by a saber-toothed tiger. They would likely have been killed. No future generation would exist.

So, their brains became programmed to fight or flee or even play dead (freeze) when danger approached. Children continually exposed to trauma cannot turn off the fight/flight/freeze mode, because their danger is not an easily identifiable saber-toothed tiger; their danger has been adults calling themselves “parents” or “protectors.” How can they learn to identify who is truly a safe adult and who is not, when the very people they live with are the tigers?

If communities are ready to address juvenile delinquency in ways that best protects the community and offers the youth a healthy, productive future, then communities must agree to be part of the solution. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child advocates several pathways to heal trauma and build resilience in youth. The three most distinguishing actions to promote healing and build resilience are:

  • At least one “stable, caring, and supportive relationship between a child and the important adults in his or her life.”
  • Helping children build a sense of mastery over their life circumstances.
  • The supportive context of affirming faith or cultural traditions.

Each of these offers opportunity for members of the community to be part of the solution to delinquency: communities that support mentoring opportunities, offer strong cultural traditions involving youth, assisting youth to understand the control they have in their own lives.

How can these happen in a community? Employers of teens are in a great position to mentor and help youth build a sense of mastery over their life circumstances. Many times delinquent youth are required to secure employment as a condition of employment exactly because of these behavior change benefits.

However, community business owners must be willing to employ youth on probation. Community leaders could create opportunities for youth during festival times, serving as traditions to be celebrated and honored. Investments in youth when delinquency has occurred have the potential to save the community dollars and increase safety.

If the chain of trauma is allowed to continue and the youth damaged by childhood trauma is not healed, the trauma will continue into the next generation, and the community will stay at risk. It takes commitment from each member of a community to provide safe environments for healing, as well as opportunities to heal.

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