At the supermarket last week, I saw a young woman who looked familiar, but I could not recall her name. I said “Hello” and continued looking for kale, quinoa and 15-grain bread — staples at my house since we are eating healthy.
Two aisles over, I saw her again. She was thin, almost gaunt, dressed in worn clothes that didn’t fit, but I now recognized her from an appearance years ago in my juvenile courtroom. Let’s call her Kera.
Kera recognized me, too. I tried to start a conversation. She mumbled a short response and hurried out of the store without making a purchase.
In the parking lot, I sat in my pickup for several minutes thinking about this woman who had the outward appearance of a meth addict. I wondered how she came to be the person I just saw and what I might have done differently to improve her outcome.
My thoughts turned to remarks delivered by Abigail Baird, a developmental neuroscientist studying brain development and decision-making by teenagers. She was addressing a symposium sponsored by the National Center for State Courts and the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative.
A few days later, I was in the audience for a presentation by Anne Studzinski, managing director of the Illinois Childhood Trauma Coalition. Both experts referred to the effects of trauma on the intersecting development of the individual. These two discussions had a link that stirred up my own memories of Kera’s visits to my courtroom.
Baird described the dual development of different brain regions for emotions and thoughts and how they influence each other.
Studzinski asked the audience to think back to their earliest memories. Most reported that the memory was from ages 4 to 6 and involved a “first” time — the first day of school, a first funeral, a first trip to the emergency room or first wedding. She said those are “recallable” memories but pointed out that brain activity begins in the womb and precognition does not mean that the world around a child goes unnoticed.
Emotional responses to external events create emotional memory and when those events are positive — like hearing your grandmother’s voice singing a lullaby — the sensations cause you to feel the warmth of those moments without being able to verbalize when or where she was.
Hearing that old lullaby again can create a warm feeling. On the other hand, witnessing or experiencing a violent event also has an effect. Baird described how the fight or flight response becomes associated with painful events in a child’s past. Later, the negative behaviors that society labels disruptive, disrespectful or criminal in a social setting may be traced to a response to a forgotten trauma.
Kera was first in a courtroom at age 9 when a petition alleging sexual abuse was filed against her mother and paramour-perpetrator that alleged sexual penetration at age 4. Mom refused to leave her boyfriend, and Kera became a ward of the state child welfare agency. She didn’t like that, and she bit, screamed, cried and threw tantrums. At the age 13, she ran away from her foster home. She was found, returned and placed in another foster home — only to run away again and again.
As she approached age 15, Kera was placed in a group facility where she discovered drugs from other residents, ran away and learned that sex is a saleable commodity almost anywhere. When that wasn’t enough, she and a friend burglarized a house. Sadly, the elderly resident was inside the home and was brutally beaten by Kera’s friend before they fled with about $500 and a .44. They were caught before they used the gun or spent the money.
After a long period in detention awaiting trial, Kera was convicted. At sentencing, her caseworker described her as a girl who was always “out of control” and “needing consequences for her behavior.” Even with therapy, the caseworker often found her running or scheming to run away to her “worthless” mother. In prison, she was placed in segregation at least once per month. In court review hearings, she was shackled, in leg chains and a belly belt to prevent her outbursts and attempts to run.
I can attempt to salve my conscience because I did not know about brain development or trauma-informed practice. But it doesn’t work — acknowledging my ignorance and failures of the justice system cannot repair the harm done.
Our court systems, both child welfare and juvenile delinquency, must learn what science can teach us and use that knowledge every day in every case, no matter what the circumstances. That will be justice.
Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., is chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission and an alternate member of the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before his retirement as chief judge of Illinois' 2nd Circuit. He is also a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the statewide Juvenile Justice Initiative.