Law Enforcement, Child Development People Must Communicate for Reform

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“10-4,” which means, “message received, affirmative,” is an example of a coded language that may be familiar to civilians not trained as a law enforcement officer. But there are many other police codes the average citizen cannot understand as radio calls are transmitted and officers exchange information. 

There are reasons different professions use coded language systems. In law enforcement, coded police talk started in the 1920s, and 1930s when radio channels were sparse, according to the Association of Public Safety Communication. Officers needed to communicate critical information on the radio quickly, so the profession created what are called 10-codes and then signal codes. Police also believed the codes would keep information private from the civilian public. 

In the field of education and human development, we also have codes and acronyms to help teachers and youth outreach workers discuss academics, behavior and other essential concepts related to the specific world of education and human development.

ACEs: Kathleen Van Antwerp (headshot), executive director of Ventura County Child Abuse Prevention Council, smiling woman with long blond hair, long earrings, white top.

Kathleen Van Antwerp

To effectively reform the juvenile justice system from a developmental approach, law enforcement and child and adolescent developmental specialists must use code-switching. Code-switching is the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of communication in a conversation. For most people, code-switching is subconscious, yet it can also be intuitive, practiced or used as a strategy. For people who want to communicate and collaborate between two different professions, code-switching is an effective strategy. 

I began to understand the critical importance of professional code-switching when I started training law enforcement officers in the science of child and adolescent development, I used this method as a strategy. I began each training session with the following statement: I am going to ask you three questions related to the science of child and adolescent development. If you know the answers, I will be impressed, and if you do not know the answers, then I ask you to respect why you need to learn how these concepts are essential to your work in the community with youth. 

  1. What is the process of pruning during human development and at what age(s) do children begin this process?
  2. What does the acronym ACE stand for as it relates to children? 
  3. What is the bioecological systems theory, and how is it connected to community policing? 

Not one officer has ever known the answers to these developmental questions. I have purposely used this introduction with hundreds of officers I have trained, knowing that officers will not know the codes and acronyms from the field of child development, just as child development specialists do not know police codes. 

Teaching officers to code-switch

Why does this matter? If we are going to embark upon authentic reform, we need to speak the same language. 

The future of juvenile justice programming needs to turn into a transdisciplinary approach, which implies a research strategy that crosses many disciplinary boundaries to create a holistic approach. In the reform movement, we must focus on using a team of diverse professionals and use code-switching to begin to develop a centralized language as the starting point for working with children and families from a transdisciplinary approach. 

Over the past year, I have used the code-switching concept as I worked collaboratively with the Ventura County Probation Agency in southern California. The agency plays a key role in juvenile justice reform, specifically in the process of diversion. The Ventura County administrative team and the officers in the field have all been receptive to understanding the science of child and adolescent development as well as teaching me the codes and methodologies they use to understand and guide the children on their caseloads. 

We explored over a dozen different topics related to the science of child and adolescent development such as “Understanding the At-Risk Child,” “The Developing Brain and Behavior,” “Trauma-informed Care,” “ACEs” and “The Five Protective Factors to Strengthen Families.” The officers learned that the acronym ACE stands for adverse childhood experiences, and a pair of ACEs is when we add adverse community experiences to the discussion. 

ACEs and Adverse Community Experiences have a tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity, according to the CDC.

Here are some of the statements made by the Ventura County probation officers regarding the ACEs training: 

Question: How does the adverse childhood experiences “ACE” study impact your work as a probation officer?”

  • “Allows me to be more aware that contact with the youth can be imperative in recognizing and assisting with ACEs.”
  • “Many of the youth with a high ACE score have a trauma that has not been addressed. It is probations responsibility to understand /find what the underlying issue is that triggers the behavior of these youth.”
  • “The youth we interact with on probation come from families that are unstable and have a history of abuse, neglect, and criminality. It is important for officers to understand that trauma is something that can cause adverse behaviors in youth, people and adults and that with proper treatment services, and support youth and adults can overcome the adverse behaviors and start to become productive members and heal.”
  • Officers stated that learning about ACEs should influence their decisions when writing case plans and providing recommendations to the court. 

Some of the initial challenges when training law enforcement officers remain a challenge at the end of our training session.

That is buy-in, believing that this reform is necessary and/or that this science applies to the work they are trained to do in terms of enforcing the law. It is critical to identify how we create next steps so we do not lose momentum in Ventura County. 

The officers I have been fortunate to work with over this past year are open to learning and receptive to using the science of child and adolescent development to inform the decisions they are making with youth each day. This is a paramount step forward. 

Another critical aspect of working with law enforcement in the reform movement is building trusting relationships. Relationship-building takes continuous effort, mutual respect and trust, which happens over time. In Ventura County, we have achieved mutual respect and trust, and the officers have identified how they would like to continue using the science of child and adolescent development to work with children and families. Funding, which often becomes an issue, cannot become a roadblock to progress. This work is essential to reform.

‘I didn’t know I wanted to learn [what] I learned’

Listed below, in their own words, are a few of the many ideas presented by officers on how to keep the reform work we are engaged in progressively moving forward. 

  • Continue with training bimonthly on the science of child and adolescent development.
  • Have Dr. K [me] review our curriculum and evaluate and provide feedback on the Day Reporting Center.
  • Hold unit case conferences wherein a group of deputy probation officers discuss their more challenging cases.
  • Observe/feedback on Child Family Team meetings.
  • Assist in developing case plan/curriculum for youth returning to probation from Department of Juvenile Justice to reintegrate into society and a chance to be successful. 
  • Senior Probation Deputy Officer Involvement — more participation as some supervisors still struggle to believe in this work. There needs to be more accountability from top to bottom. 
  • Family Engagement — poor for the youth we serve. We need to focus on this area more for a child to be successful.
  • Brainstorming complex cases at all entry points (intake to Juvenile Hall, investigation reports, and supervision).
  • Continuous reminders/education about teenagers; their behavior and the stressors they experience (the science of child and adolescent development including brain development)
  • Educate deputy probation officers how to give youth and families hope; stay away from punitive approach. 
  • A class/participation regarding ACEs and the effects of exposures on young children and like the example of the baby from the [Domestic Violence] video would be very beneficial at the KEYS program for youth with kids, or who live with younger siblings and also parents. 

I can now say I know more police codes than just “10-4,” and the Ventura County probation officers recognize that understanding what Adverse Childhood Experiences means has a significant impact on the work they do every day in the field. This quote summarizes where we started and where we ended up with the hope for continued progress:

“I am not sure what I still what to learn. I have liked this training, but I don’t know what I don’t know. I didn’t know I wanted to learn everything that I have learned from your visits. However, your instruction/class time has been invaluable and has opened my eyes to be more understanding of the teenagers that come through our office. I find myself wanting to get to know the kids, their families, and wanting to get a better understanding of the services they need. Thank you for everything, and hopefully, we’ll see you again for continued training.”

Kathleen Van Antwerp, Ed.D., is the executive director of the Ventura County Child Abuse Prevention Council. She is the co-director of knowledge-based programs for youth for Full Circle Consulting Systems.

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