OP-ED: Indiscriminate Shackling of Children in Juvenile Court Should End

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Shawn Marsh

The practice of indiscriminate shackling of children in juvenile court — the use of wrist, belly or ankle restraints, often with limited consideration of the case’s circumstances — is fraught with peril from a developmentally or trauma-informed perspective.

Most children appearing for a delinquency matter in juvenile court are adolescents. Adolescence is a developmental stage marked in part by a brain undergoing substantial maturation, efforts to craft an identity separate from one’s parents and refinement of one’s worldview (i.e., how the world works in terms of justice, fairness, etc.).

In other words, adolescence is a time of incredible growth — and although teenagers are highly adaptive, it also is a period of vulnerability and malleability. The use of shackles in juvenile court as a matter of routine practice interferes with healthy development in a number of ways, and actually can cause unintended harm.

hub_arrow_2-01There are myriad arguments for eliminating indiscriminate shackling of children while in court, including the potential for heightening bias against the child in the proceedings, interfering with a child’s ability to communicate and participate in the hearing, exacerbating shame and stigma, health complications, facilitating learned helplessness or erosion of self-efficacy, triggering survival responses (i.e., fight, flight or freeze), retraumatization, redundancy given presence of security personnel and introducing additional security concerns (e.g., use of restraint equipment to harm others).

Certainly, these are valid concerns, and should be considered carefully when developing a protocol for the use of shackles with children. Social science, however, provides another compelling reason to end the indiscriminate use of shackles in juvenile court: the pervasive power of roles and symbolism.

Specifically, research suggests that when people are assigned roles (e.g., prisoner versus guard) and symbols make those roles more concrete (e.g., prison jumpsuit, restraints, police uniform, tactical gear, etc.), it is more likely people will follow the norms for those roles. As many will remember from the Stanford prison experiments and more recently prisons in Iraq, this role adoption dynamic can lead to very dramatic and unintended consequences.

Extrapolation of the social psychological research suggests shackling is one more symbolic message to a child that his role is “prisoner” — or in more general terms, “deviant,” as in having done something wrong. Research also suggests this could elevate aggressive or dissociative behaviors in the child that are consistent with that deviant role, later affect how others respond to those behaviors and inadvertently reinforce their associated perceptions/beliefs about the child.

Lastly, in juvenile court, it is typically visually apparent the child is the focus of the hearing. Further identifying that child as “in trouble” through shackles is often redundant — and more about an adult desire to control and demand respect for authority than the best interest of the child.

Oftentimes, safety and security of the judge and courtroom are used to justify the use of shackles with children. There is no doubt that in some instances children do present a real and present danger of harming themselves, hurting others or escaping custody. The decision, however, to shackle a child in those instances should fall to the judge and only when the risk is thoroughly articulated.

This approach of a “no-shackle assumption” with exceptions for legitimate risk is and has been used successfully in jurisdictions across the nation. In those jurisdictions, some of which hear thousands of delinquency cases each year, incidents involving acting-out behavior or escape attempts are exceedingly rare or even nonexistent. Perhaps even more interesting, some courts that default to shackling have reported more frequent incidents of serious misbehavior.

Granted, there is no known data repository to tease out the full scope of major incidents involving children who were or were not shackled — but reports from judges on both sides of this issue do suggest that major acting out in court has a very low base rate of occurrence. Thus, we are again reminded of the caution that exceptions should rarely drive rules.

Robust staff training on strategies for working effectively with children and understanding trauma-informed care can substantially support the elimination of indiscriminate shackling while still ensuring a safe and secure court environment. Equally important is the need for judicial leadership in reforming shackling practices. Judges are the final authority in the courtroom, and requiring children to appear without restraints unless ordered by the judge in the face of legitimate risk is critical to avoiding harm and encouraging developmentally informed practice.

To this end, the Juvenile Law Advisory Committee of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges is drafting a resolution about ending indiscriminate shackling in juvenile court to be considered by the board of directors in July. If passed by the board, the resolution will then become official policy of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

Although there are courts and judges hesitant to eliminate indiscriminate shackling, it is important to not let outlier incidents shape universal practice and to constantly promote the needs of the child over the perceived needs of the institution that exists to help children. Ultimately, we can do better than routinely restrain our children out of fear, liability concerns, convenience or misguided attempts to message consequences.

No matter where you fall on the issue of kids shackled in court, it is often enlightening to consider this question: If this was my child in court, would I want them automatically restrained?

Shawn C. Marsh, Ph.D., is the chief program officer of juvenile law for theNational Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

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