Juvenile jails adopting ACE- and trauma-informed practices

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” – Frederick Douglass

Jane Halladay, director of the service systems program at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which developed the Think Trauma curriculum for staff members in juvenile correctional facilities, remembers a young man who was very difficult to handle, especially first thing in the morning.

When he woke up, it was as if he had just emerged from battling demons in his dreams. “He was extremely confrontational, aggressive, ready for a fight,” Halladay says. “In treatment, it came out that the staff woke people up by turning on and off the lights – and it came out that he had once been stabbed in the neck and had come to in the ambulance.

Jane Halladay

Jane Halladay

“They understood the impact,” she says. “They made it a policy to wake him up every morning before they turned on and off the lights. All of his behavioral issues completely disappeared. He was a completely different youth.”

Youths convicted of offenses that land them in facilities to serve out their sentences have a disproportionately high number of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). One Florida study recently put hard numbers on this intuitive reality — half of the Florida juveniles reported four or more ACEs, compared with 13 percent of those in the CDC’s ACE Study.

This is important, because a high number of ACEs can cause chronic disease, mental illness, violence, being a victim of violence and early death. (See ACEs 101 for more information.)

After decades of get-tough policies that often morphed delinquent youth into hardened criminals – i.e., further traumatizing already traumatized kids — state, local and private facilities are developing ACE- and trauma-informed training for staff and systems for their facilities. They realize that the time these post-traumatic youth spend under their roofs can be a time for healing — if it’s handled right.

Six years ago, New York State asked staff members in the Division of Juvenile Justice and Opportunities for Youth to “evolve their understanding of their role”, says Joe Tomassone, acting associate commissioner for programs and services.

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Midwest Regional Summit: Talking ACEs and community trauma-informed solutions

Laura Porter, co-founder ACE Interface (Mike Kelly photo)

Laura Porter, co-founder ACE Interface (Mike Kelly photo)

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CHICAGO—Across the United States these days, it seems as if hardly a week goes by without a conference or a workshop about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and how people are implementing trauma-informed and resilience-building practices in their organizations — including schools, prisons, homeless shelters, hospitals, medical clinics, youth services or businesses.

This month ACEs and trauma conferences and workshops were held in Los Angeles, Santa Rosa and Pasadena, CA, in Dover, DE, Brainerd, MN, Austin, TX, and, the 2015 Midwest Regional Summit on Adverse Childhood Experiences held March 12-13 at Loyola University School of Law in Chicago.

For people who have known for years about the ACE Study, epidemiological research completed by Kaiser Permanente in San Diego and the Centers for Disease Control — such as Laura Porter and Dr. Roy Wade, both of whom spoke at the Midwest summit –- this interest can’t come soon enough, given the significance of the research.

Still, for most people – although probably not including the 140 attendees at the third annual conference hosted by the Illinois ACE Response Collaborative  – their response is: “What are ACEs?” “What’s trauma-informed?” “What does resilience-building mean?”

Midwest Regional Summit on Adverse Childhood Experiences (Mike Kelly photo)

Midwest Regional Summit on Adverse Childhood Experiences (Mike Kelly photo)

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Research has shown a direct link between childhood adversity — ACEs – and the adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence, explained Wade, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and member of the Philadelphia ACE Task Force. ACEs create mental and physical health risks that continue to crop up over a person’s lifetime if not adequately addressed.

These can include developmental delays early in life, mental health and academic achievement issues in childhood, involvement in the juvenile justice system, and alcohol and drug abuse as a youth and adult.

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Juvenile detention centers: On the other side of “lock ‘em ‘up”, but not quite trauma-informed

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There are three ways to look at how the juvenile justice system is using modern practices to reduce youth crime and violence.

  1. One is what happens on the way to the detention center where a kid is held until trial – i.e., how the system decides which kids must be locked up, and who can live at home or in a group home until their trial date.
  2. The second is inside detention center walls – what happens to kids inside these mostly county-run centers while they’re awaiting trial.
  3. The third is inside the correctional facilities where youth serve out their sentences. These are usually run by states.

There’s a lot of progress in revamping what happens to kids on the way to detention centers – in fact, 300 sites in 39 states have changed their approach, with remarkable results, according to the 2014 Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative Progress Report.

There’s also stunning progress in modernizing the institutions where youth serve out their sentences (more about that in the next story).

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But inside the walls of detention centers that hold kids for 20 days, on average, before trial? That’s another story, and it’s part of this story. The main

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‘Make It Happen’ program offers outlet for youths haunted by memories of violence

Kenton Kirby (right), head of Make It Happen, smiles with colleague David Grant (left) and a youth in the program. Credit: Make It Happen

Kenton Kirby (right), head of Make It Happen, smiles with colleague David Grant (left) and a youth in the program. Credit: Make It Happen

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By Samuel Lieberman

NEW YORK — It was dismissal time. Everyone had left the classroom, but John Sadler had to run back to pick up his backpack.  Three of his classmates, boys who were constantly picking on Sadler, were blocking the door on his way out.

“What are you doing, are you stealing?” they asked.

Sadler, 13, knew they were trying to get a rise out of him. “I already knew what was going to happen,” he said.

The boys blocked his exit so he pushed them back forcefully with his stocky legs. He ran down the stairs but was no match for his swift pursuers.

“I got to the bottom of the steps and they jumped me right there,” Sadler said. “They were stomping on my knees, my ankles. They kicked me on my side.” Sadler limped to the shelter where he and his mother were staying.

His mother came to school the next day. “But I couldn’t tell them who did it,” he said. “‘Snitches get stitches’ they said, and I didn’t want that to be me.”

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Current juvenile justice system ‘designed to erode humanity’ says author

From left, Tynesha McHarris, director of community leadership at the Brooklyn Community Foundation, Renee Gregory, first assistant district attorney in the Brooklyn District Attorney's office, and Krista Larson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center for Youth Justice, and Nell Bernstein, author of Burning Down the House. Credit: Meral Agish

From left, Tynesha McHarris, director of community leadership at the Brooklyn Community Foundation, Renee Gregory, first assistant district attorney in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, and Krista Larson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center for Youth Justice, and Nell Bernstein, author of Burning Down the House. Credit: Meral Agish

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By Meral Agish

NEW YORK — When Nell Bernstein, the editor of a youth newspaper, looked at her staff, she saw bright young people at work. But in those years, the 1990s, some looked at those same faces and saw little more than a threat — and began to react with force.

Based on little other than appearance, these young people became victims of the “superpredator” theory. Bernstein described that as “a mythical creature with a hoodie and a black face, with no conscience, no spirit, no soul, who we were asked to believe lived in the bodies of our teenagers.”

Her staff members started getting arrested on their way to work. The arrests got so frequent that some quit, saving themselves from exposure to further targeting.

For Bernstein, seeing her young colleagues unfairly profiled in this way led her to act. In the decades since, juvenile justice reform has become a core theme in her investigative reporting.

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Meditation 2.0: A new way to meditate

Dr. Amit Sood, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and founder of the Global Center for Resiliency and Wellbeing, narrates this animation, which he produced after becoming frustrated with how difficult it was to meditate. After he realized that modern humans might need to do meditation a different way, he came up with this approach. Here are a couple of paragraphs from his description:

I was born in India. I like meditation. What is not to like about meditation? It is known to be relaxing, health improving, brain enhancing, and free of side effects. The problem was–after decades of learning and practicing I must confess that  I found meditation a very difficult practice. I had a few good days, but on most days I didn’t even know what I was doing. If after years of practice, this was my state, I can only begin to imagine what others might be going through. It occurred to me
that the busy minds of the 21st Century need a modified version of the practice to access its full benefits. I went back to the drawing board, immersed myself in neuroscience and evolutionary biology.
I started developing a simpler way to access meditation,  which was in many ways very different from what I had learned over the years. Applying those ideas helped my personal practice, but I was still unsure.
In the midst of it all, I met the world’s preeminent authority on meditation – His Holiness Dalai Lama.

PBS documentary — “Raising of America: Early Childhood and the Future of Our Nation”

“Raising of America: Early Childhood and the Future of Our Nation” is a documentary series planned to run on PBS later this year. It’s being screened around the country now. The documentary explores how a strong start for our children can lead to a healthier, stronger, and more equitable America. The project grew out of an earlier award-winning documentary about inequality made by the same organization, California Newsreel, the oldest documentary production and distribution nonprofit in the U.S., along with Vital Pictures in Boston.

Of particular interest to the community of people who are interested in adverse childhood experiences is the fourth episode,  “Wounded Places: Confronting PTSD in America’s Shell-Shocked Cities.” The 42-minute documentary can be streamed from the Raising of America site. Earlier episodes are available there as well. “Wounded Places” details the effects of childhood trauma on later life and shows how healing can take place in communities throughout the nation.

Here’s the description of “Wounded Places”:

Wounded Places travels to Philadelphia and Oakland where a long history of disinvestment and racial exclusion have ravaged entire neighborhoods and exposed children to multiple adverse childhood experiences (or ACEs). We meet families and some remarkable young people who have been traumatized not just by shootings, but fear, uncertainty and a sense of futurelessness.

As Stanford physician Victor Carrion explains, “If we are crossing the street and we see that a truck is coming at us, we can manage that situation, get scared, jump, and move quickly. Unfortunately, many children in our society feel like a truck is coming at them all day long, for more days than not, and this really takes a toll.”

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