New Tool Will Help Form Responses to Adolescent Domestic Battery

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Lisa JacobsIn December 2015, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation published the “Adolescent Domestic Battery Typology Tool” to improve the way the juvenile justice system responds when a youth is facing arrest or system involvement for battering a parent or caregiver. To those outside the juvenile justice system, it might be surprising that such a tool would be needed. Those who work in or with the system might well wonder, “What took us so long?”

The good news is that the tool is now available to help guide system responses, including possible diversion from arrest and/or detention, case processing and treatment decisions in adolescent domestic battery (ADB) cases. The culmination of a multiyear, cross-site and cross-state effort, the tool has its origins in the Illinois Models for Change Initiative, for which Loyola University Chicago served as lead entity.

Models for Change selected five Illinois “demonstration sites” to examine their local juvenile justice systems and to craft system improvement strategies. Their work was informed by three key principles: Youth and families should not be pulled into the justice system unnecessarily; when youth are involved in the justice system, they must be treated as individuals and provided developmentally appropriate, fair and rehabilitative support and services; and youth must leave the justice system with opportunities for positive development and outcomes that, in turn, enhance public safety and community well-being.

While each Illinois site developed local priorities and strategies for realizing these principles, they discovered shared concerns about how their systems responded to ADB cases. (For these purposes, ADB includes family crisis and/or violence that results in police contact and potential delinquency system involvement. Youth in the ADB population may be charged with domestic battery against a caregiver or parent or with a related offense arising out of family conflict.)

As described more fully in “Adolescent Domestic Battery: Responding to Families in Crisis,” stakeholders in each site concluded that, despite similar terminology and statutory provisions, ADB can have very different origins and require different responses than adult domestic battery or intimate partner violence. In particular, focusing solely on a youth’s behavior did not address the family’s needs or dynamics. Plus, responding as if a youth was a “domestic batterer” in development was often inaccurate and did little to protect family members or enhance community safety. But there were often no real alternatives to these “adultified” approaches to ADB.

As a result, despite a relatively robust range of detention alternatives for other offenses, the three lead ADB communities (Cook, DuPage and Peoria counties) discovered that they missed opportunities for front-end crisis responses, over-relied on detention (including a significant proportion of “overrides” of their detention screening tool) and failed to examine or address family dynamics contributing to the youth’s behavior. Local data indicated that young people (and sometimes their siblings) were cycling through the justice system and detention repeatedly while, at the same time, there was too little focus on parents’ and victims’ needs.

[Related: Troubled Teens Blossom in Strength-based Program With Caring Adults]

As importantly, some of these youth and families didn’t belong in the juvenile justice system at all. Some needed no intervention, while others needed support to address mental health, trauma, child maltreatment and/or substance abuse issues. In short, stakeholders agreed that ADB was presenting unique challenges at each stage of the juvenile justice system — from law enforcement contact and arrest to post-adjudication and probation stages — and that there were big gaps in best practices with these youth and families.

So the sites set about learning more about families in crisis, ADB and effective responses — using local data, national research, clinical observation and cross-site collaboration. As this work unfolded, crisis responders and probation officers began to articulate the idea that — while each youth and family must be treated as individuals — there were some patterns or subcategories within the broad charge category of ADB. They realized that identifying and understanding these patterns could help in crafting the right responses to families in crisis. The ADBTT (then called the ADB matrix) began to take shape.

In its current form, the ADBTT recognizes the following distinct typologies, each of which can indicate differing risks for further aggressive behavior and point to possible diversion opportunities and intervention strategies:

  • Defensive: Any violence (not just the current incident) directed toward the parent has been in response to a physical threat by the parent;
  • Isolated incident: Violence was an isolated event born out of atypical family or individual stress, without which the youth may have chosen a more appropriate conflict resolution;
  • Family chaos: A pattern of events in which the youth’s behavior predictably spirals to the point of aggression in order to obtain his or her purposes and is characterized by inconsistent and unclear parental authority; and
  • Escalating: A pattern of behavior intended to intimidate, control and coerce a parent into giving in to the youth’s demands and to shift authority to the youth, effectively establishing the youth in a position of control over the parent.

In collaboration with the Illinois Models for Change ADB sites and technical assistance providers (Wendy Nussbaum, Shannon Hartnett and Stuart Berry), the National Youth Screening and Assessment Project (NYSAP), previously at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, undertook a six-jurisdiction, cross-state validation study. Its purpose was to determine whether the tool could accurately predict additional domestic battery incidents and supplement the range of general risk and needs assessments currently available to juvenile justice practitioners.

In other words, did it work? And is it value added for the field? The study, which is described as including the “largest reported sample of youth who have been arrested for an act of domestic battery toward a parent,” indicated that the answers to both questions is yes.

The ADBTT and a user’s manual are now available free through NYSAP or the MacArthur Models for Change website. It is designed to be utilized primarily preadjudication, although it may be useful in developing post-adjudication service plans. It utilizes 30 items falling within eight domains, with information gathered through brief interviews with youth and parents as well as supplemental information (as needed) such as police reports, delinquency records, child welfare records and behavioral health assessments.

Using the tool requires no specific licensure, though knowledge of adolescent development, family dynamics, motivational interviewing and appropriate responses to trauma are recommended. It can be used by a range of juvenile justice, child welfare and human service professionals. NYSAP recommends and provides a specialized training course to use the tool effectively.

Nearly a decade after the first Illinois Models for Change sites identified ADB as both a problem for their juvenile justice systems and an opportunity to improve interactions with youth and families, the knowledge of ADB and effective responses has grown exponentially.

Looking forward, there is additional work to be done to ensure that systems and service providers address trauma in the ADB population and understand and meet the needs of girls, who – in Illinois and likely many other jurisdictions – comprise a much larger proportion of the ADB caseload than they do other offense categories. But today, juvenile justice, child welfare and human services systems need to use the tools and resources now available to improve outcomes for youth and victims of ADB.

For more information and linkages to resources, see: http://www.nysap.us/MfC%20ADBTT%20Manual.pdf

Lisa Jacobs served as program manager for the Illinois Models for Change Initiative and is with Loyola University Chicago School of Law.

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