While Florida has taken steps toward integrating trauma-informed practices in the juvenile justice system, the state needs to reconsider its treatment of youth. Notably, utilizing trauma-informed care in the juvenile justice system, while necessary, is not sufficient — prevention should be the goal, with trauma-informed services implemented in all child-involved systems. The state must also stop incarcerating children with adults and offer all juveniles in detention/incarceration access to trauma-informed services.
Florida has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and leads the nation in the number of children prosecuted as adults and the number of children incarcerated in adult facilities. Currently, over 14,000 youths are in juvenile detention and hundreds of others are direct-filed and placed into adult correctional facilities each year.
More than 60% of these direct-file cases are for nonviolent offenses like drug use, disorderly conduct, probation violations, property crimes and status offenses. The sentences imposed on the direct-filed children are often so short that the majority are released before their 25th birthdays, leading one to wonder whether such transfers are necessary.
The trauma we inflict
Research shows that detainment and incarceration are inherently (re)traumatizing and negatively impair one’s ability to engage in treatment or rehabilitative efforts. While the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice has embraced trauma-informed care, we cannot deny that the justice system has the capacity to (re)traumatize those who are processed through it, regardless of the programming offered to address trauma.
And youth transferred to the adult justice system are often subjected to extreme trauma in the form of solitary confinement, often implemented as a protective measure. For example, in an effort to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which requires protection of vulnerable populations, many states place juveniles housed in adult facilities in solitary confinement to reduce interactions with adult prisoners.
However, in a recent PREA report, Florida reported the highest rates of inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization and staff sexual misconduct of all states reporting under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). Placing children in this environment only begs additional victimization.
Furthermore, decades of research prove that extreme isolation can cause serious psychological, physical and developmental harm. Solitary is also far more dangerous for children and people with disabilities, as it impairs much needed social interaction and emotional development. Research also shows that youth incarcerated with adults are subjected to increased risks of violence and a robust culture of criminal behavior, while also denied access to the programs provided to juveniles housed in youth facilities.
In addition, the behaviors of children in the juvenile justice system could have been addressed in a number of healthier ways and environments. We have found through our education advocacy and representation of students in special education proceedings statewide that, oftentimes, schools punitively discipline children for behaviors that are simply manifestations of trauma they have experienced.
Instead of providing mental health support to meet students’ trauma-related needs, many schools subject students to punitive and counter-productive suspensions, expulsions, involuntary transfers and referrals to law enforcement that push them out of school and into the criminal justice system.
Additionally, a Washington state study found that every youth in the juvenile justice system surveyed exhibited “early warning signs that were not addressed by social workers, probation officers, educators, and other adults [… including] mental health problems, chemical dependency, and other conditions that are known to contribute to criminal behavior but are treatable.”
Indeed, while the state Department of Juvenile Justice, the Florida Department of Children and Families and the Florida Department of Education are all child-centered systems, the education system is the only one that interacts with all children. Thus, schools are the ideal vehicle for delivering trauma-informed services to at-risk youth while prison/detention systems, are less than ideal vehicles for delivering trauma-informed care given their inherently traumatic environments.
Incorporating ACEs and trauma-informed care
Trauma-informed care refers to an approach involving the provision of accessible and appropriate support to those who have experienced trauma. It requires an acknowledgment that trauma is pervasive and, consequently, the creation and promotion of environments that focus on healing and recovery. A trauma-informed approach acknowledges that problematic behaviors or thoughts may have developed in an effort to deal with traumatic experiences, and focuses on five key principles: safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness and empowerment.
In 1998, researchers found that children exposed to certain adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) — emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional neglect, physical neglect, violent treatment toward mother, household substance abuse, household mental illness, parental separation or divorce and having an incarcerated household member — exhibited increased risk for chronic diseases in adulthood.
Specifically, the authors found that high ACE scores correlated to: chromosome damage; functional changes to the developing brain; having 50+ sexual partners; intercourse before 15; becoming pregnant as a teenager; increased odds of smoking, heavy drinking, incarceration and morbid obesity; increased risk for poor educational and employment outcomes; increased risk for recent violence, and significant increased odds of developing heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures and liver disease. Children with four or more ACEs are up to 12 times as likely to experience the above compared to children with fewer ACES.
Research has since shown that such youth may also be disproportionately present in the juvenile and adult justice systems. A study published in 2014, involving 64,329 juvenile offenders who were in the Florida system from 2007-12, revealed that: 90% of the youth surveyed reported at least two ACEs, 73% reported at least three ACEs, 52% reported at least four ACEs and 32% reported five or more. Of the 13,692 females in the survey who identified at least one ACE, 92% reported at least two and, for the 48,844 males surveyed who reported at least one ACE, 89% reported at least two, meaning that if a youth in the juvenile justice system reports one ACE, there is a 90% chance they have experienced others.
Throughout the country, it has been demonstrated that early and effective interventions that teach skills bolstering resilience can give children affected by trauma meaningful access to the systems they need and deserve, like public education. One way that Southern Legal Counsel is seeking to address the impact of adverse childhood experiences on children is by early intervention with youth in the education system, which is where trauma-informed services and resilience-building should be fostered.
But the state needs to take steps as well to ensure that trauma-informed care is provided to all juveniles in the justice system, and to help reduce the trauma of the system by ending the prosecution of minors as adults, especially for nonviolent offenses, and provide alternatives so that children are never housed with adults or placed in extreme isolation.
Samantha Howell is the pro bono director at Southern Legal Counsel, a statewide not-for-profit public interest law firm focused on assisting individuals who would not otherwise have access to the justice system through systemic change efforts and impact litigation.