When officials in four states were asked several years ago what tools they would need to divert youth from the juvenile justice system, a better understanding of trauma was at the top of all their lists.
They wanted to help youth with behavioral conditions when they are evaluated for probation but said they couldn’t do so most effectively without understanding how traumatic experiences had affected the adolescents.
A new report sets out a framework for trauma-informed diversion that grew from those states’ experiences and additional research into best practices. It’s intended as guidance for other juvenile justice officials considering reforms to address trauma.
“If four independent states are identifying this as their biggest challenge, they’re not the only ones,” said Karli Keator, division director at the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice. The center and the Technical Assistance Collaborative Inc. worked with the four states — Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts and Tennessee — as part of the 2014-15 Policy Academy-Action Network Initiative and released the report.
Research shows many youth who have contact with the juvenile justice system are dealing with mental health or substance use disorders, and most also have experienced at least one traumatic event. Because trauma can interact with mental health or substance use disorders in ways that intensify those issues, a trauma-informed system plays an important role in helping youth, according to the report.
“By more effectively responding to traumatic stress, probation officers and others in the justice system can expect youth to experience increased levels of success with diversion services and more fully comply with dispositional requirements. Better life outcomes should also be realized,” the report says.
It identifies nine key elements needed to develop a trauma-informed diversion program for youth with behavioral conditions. The elements include leadership, cross-sector collaboration, policy and procedures, funding strategies and workforce development.
The elements are rooted in a report about trauma by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration but tailored to the needs of juvenile justice systems.
The report details each element and provides case studies from the four states. Under leadership, for example, the report shows the importance of identifying champions and linking leaders across systems, such as law enforcement, education and public health. Under policy and procedures, the report includes information on internal policies, memoranda of understanding between agencies and legislation.
The case studies tell of the role of a probation officer in Georgia who championed reform, engaging youth in Tennessee, and family involvement in Massachusetts.
Keator said much work remains to be done across the country to build trauma-informed diversion policies. States also will need to think about how to best identify kids in need, make appropriate referrals to services that are designed to address trauma and provide follow-up support.
“It’s not a one-and-done approach. We need a continuum,” she said.
In Georgia, state officials and their community partners built on earlier efforts to build a trauma-informed system. They were able to pinpoint when and how to screen youth in ways that are so far showing success, said Christine Doyle, director of the Office of Behavioral Health at the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.
“The information we have anecdotally is that it’s going well. The kids are responding to the screenings. They’re answering the questions, the referrals are being made and the kids are getting services,” she said.
Doyle said that while every state will have its own needs and solutions, collaboration is critical no matter the situation.
“Building a strong team is an essential piece to doing this work. No one organization or agency can do it alone,” she said.