Police Must Learn About Child Development Before Working With At-risk Youth

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Would a law enforcement officer hand a private citizen a gun and ask them to uphold the law without the completion of an officer’s standards and training course? The answer is a resounding no, because that would put people's lives in jeopardy.

Law enforcement is a serious profession with strict discipline and education. While each state and jurisdiction has different training requirements, officers receive extensive training before patrolling the streets and enforcing the law. Deciding to join the academy does not make someone a law enforcement officer. Completion of law enforcement academy and field training programs are mandatory before becoming a qualified officer.

The mere existence of police academies demonstrates the importance of training law enforcement officers to uphold the law.

So why are officers placed in the field to work directly with youth without being provided extensive training in the science of child and adolescent development? Like an untrained citizen trying to enforce the law, officers working with at-risk youth without knowledge of child development is putting children's social/emotional development in jeopardy.

I have spent 30 years working with a multidisciplinary team of professionals to reform the education and juvenile justice system for at-risk youth. Years ago, when I began focusing my work on training law enforcement in the science of child and adolescent development, I believed placing officers in direct contact with at-risk youth was a forward-thinking approach to community policing and juvenile justice diversion.

I knew through extensive research that five historical challenges of the implementation of community policing were prevalent in law enforcement departments nationwide. These problems include:

  1. mission ambiguity
  2. lack of strategic planning
  3. a limited scope of actual implementation
  4. issues with authentic program evaluation
  5. untrained, unqualified personnel assigned to youth outreach positions.

I learned these historical challenges are not historical; they are still widespread in law enforcement today. As a child behavioral and human development specialist, the area most concerning to me is the complete absence of child development in the California training curriculum provided to law enforcement officers.

What is even more shocking is how many officers are directly responsible for working with at-risk youth who have not (and won’t) receive specific training in this science. The science of child and adolescent development is the study of human development from conception to emerging adulthood. The primary objectives of the theories in this science are to understand universal age and stage milestones, brain maturation, human behavior, multiple intelligences and socialization, basically all the components that make us each uniquely human.

Most importantly, it provides a scientific understanding of behavior as it relates to various stages of development. "Behavior, including antisocial and delinquent behavior, is the result of a complex interplay of individual biological and genetic factors and environmental factors, starting during fetal development and continuing throughout life," “Juvenile Crime, Juvenile Justice” explains.

Unfortunately, far too many young children do not have the opportunity to develop the tools for healthy socialization and are placed at risk for failure in school and life. In fact, a lack of social skills has been identified as the primary cause of behavior problems in schools. That means social skills guidance by educated, caring mentors should be the number one solution.

The movement to reform our juvenile justice system is long overdue. Youth diversion programs are receiving support and funding on a large scale  

It is impossible, however, for us to reform our education and juvenile justice systems without training the individuals directly responsible for youth diversion programs in the science of child and adolescent development.

I have taught and worked side by side with hundreds of law enforcement officers throughout the United States. While each one I have worked with has expressed a sincere interest in justice reform and youth diversion programs, none had specific experience or training to work with at-risk youth before being placed in youth outreach programs. It is apparent history is continuing to repeat itself concerning untrained, unqualified personnel assigned to youth outreach positions.

Over 50 years ago a bill was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 31, 1968 that promised a fundamental reform of juvenile justice.

It is imperative that we recognize juvenile justice reform challenges and proactively work to change history for our youth. It is an honor for my team to work with proactive leaders in California probation departments and community policing units who recognize the importance of child development training for their deputy field officers and officers who work in youth detention camps because what happens in California has national and even international significance.

As an advocate, an educator and a leader in juvenile justice reform, I leave you to ponder the "what if, if only and if this goes on" as it relates to juvenile justice reform.

So, what if we incorporated the science of child and adolescent development into the curriculum of police academies nationwide? What if we selected officers with both interest and education in this field to work in the community policing aspect of their local agency and work collaboratively with experts in the field to create effective youth diversion programs using best practices in youth outreach?

If only we could recognize the huge impact that failing to train officers and youth outreach workers has on authentic juvenile justice reform.

If this goes on: If we continue to place law enforcement officers and teachers into primary positions on diversion without the support of experts, resources and comprehensive training in the field of child development, we will never authentically reform our justice system and youth offenders will continue to be punished, not rehabilitated.

Kathleen Van Antwerp, Ed.D., is a leader in juvenile justice reform and the executive director of knowledge-based programs for youth for Full Circle Consulting Systems. For 30-plus years she has been at the forefront of developing effective educational and youth outreach programs for at-risk adolescents and has introduced the science of child and adolescent development to juvenile crime prevention programs, law enforcement agencies, probation officers and juvenile court judges. She may be reached at onecircle@yahoo.com.

One thought on “Police Must Learn About Child Development Before Working With At-risk Youth

  1. What IF we made child development and parenting education a priority in all of our high schools reaching all of our students? We have to get out in front of this issue. All of the social problems we face in our communities can be circled back to the health of our families. Creating healthier families is the key. Breaking the cycle mean reaching all of our youth before they become parents. How do we do that? We need to be where most of the youth are….school.

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