• We must decriminalize trauma for girls with histories of abuse or neglect

    Desi-SmithBy Neha Desai and Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith 

    Girls’ involvement in the juvenile justice system is growing disproportionately at a time when arrest rates for boys are declining. And yet, girls’ behavior has not changed; rather, our response to their behavior has changed. This is especially true for girls in the child welfare system.

    Much has been written recently about the “pathways” that lead youth, especially girls of color, from histories of childhood abuse and/or neglect to involvement with the juvenile justice system. We are starting to better understand the ways in which childhood exposure to trauma can lead to survival strategies and behaviors that are criminalized, while child welfare system involvement can exacerbate underlying trauma and result in law enforcement contact for youth who otherwise would have had none.

    Our bodies are finely honed to respond to stress and danger in particular ways — through fight, flight or freeze. With chronic exposure to stress and danger, we develop survival mechanisms based on our evolutionary responses. These survival techniques include:

    • hypervigilance: constant scanning of the environment for threat;
    • exaggerated startle: moving to action quickly;
    • dissociation: a means of trying to cope with overwhelming stimulation; and
    • distrust of authority since the majority of trauma happens at the hands of authority figures.

    These strategies help us survive trauma, but outside the traumatic context, they can lead to conflict with others, distractibility, noncompliance and disrupted relationships. In other words, and as described below, the very behaviors we need to help us survive can become “problematic” and criminalized.

    Girls are disproportionately exposed to sexual trauma and sexual assault, usually at the hands of a caregiver or someone they know well. This type of experience can fundamentally change girls’ ideas about relationships, their bodies and the world.

    For some who have experienced this type of abuse, oppositionality, aggression, self-harm and substance abuse are actually adaptive ways to protect oneself and deal with relationships, authority and the body. However, these coping mechanisms may often get them into trouble. Research has found a strong link between stimulant use and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in women, suggesting that women are often trying to self-medicate the distressing and disorganizing symptoms of PTSD.

    Research consistently shows that exposure to one trauma increases the likelihood that a person will experience another trauma. This can lead to youth’s expression of further PTSD symptoms and traumatized behaviors. We also know that  youth with adverse childhood experiences are more likely to experiment with substance use, self-harm and risky sexual behavior, which may increase law enforcement contact.

    Youth who enter the child welfare system due to childhood abuse face additional challenges. Involvement with the child welfare system itself can exacerbate underlying trauma and result in juvenile justice involvement.

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  • Assisting refugees: Lessons on trauma and resilience

    arefugee

    Lao wedding in the U.S.

    Making do with what you’ve got

     There are a lot of stories about refugees in the news. Some years ago, I helped resettle refugees from the Vietnam War. Trauma and resilience define what it means to be a refugee. All of them had lived through years of warfare. They had seen friends and family members killed. They had to flee the familiar towns and villages they had lived in all their lives. They arrived in a new country with hardly any resources, in a land where nobody spoke their language or understood their customs. Could you do that?

    What they did possess was resilience. You had to believe that somehow, you would survive, despite all the horrors that you had already experienced. Those who didn’t simply did not become refugees. They couldn’t or wouldn’t give up everything they knew, risk death or imprisonment if caught, and wait in limbo for years in a refugee camp. All that and more, for the less than certain possibility of admission to some country willing to take them in. Here is a story about my interaction with one of them.

    – – –

    Sopath (not his real first name) was from Cambodia, in his mid-fifties, had just arrived in the U.S. and was not talkative even in his native language. His entire work experience, from what my interpreter could gather, consisted of pulling a plow behind a water buffalo. And I was supposed to find him a job.

    Running the employment section of a refugee resettlement program, I had dealt with these kinds of issues before, but this case felt different. When refugees were referred to my program, most were understandably anxious. A few were actually enthusiastic. In my experience, the Lao as a people tended to be gregarious and chatty, while Cambodians like Sopath were usually more formal and reserved. His affect was totally flat.

    Working through my interpreter, I tried to collect a few more details about his life. But he simply was not present. It was as if the “Farmer, water buffalo” comment was as much as he could manage.

    I looked through his file to see if I could learn anything else. I couldn’t figure why the communists had targeted him, since farming is as inoffensive a job as I could imagine. So little about that regime made any sense. The Khmer Rouge had killed between one and a half to three million of their own people. They killed people simply for wearing glasses. They assumed they were intellectuals.

    Sopath had spent the last several years in a refugee camp, where, among other things, he had done well enough in English class to be placed in my employment program. It appeared that he had recently learned the fate of some family members. Before the war, he had a wife and ten children. Now he had two children. Everyone else was dead. That realization probably dominated his life.

    Speaking through my interpreter, I said, “I cannot imagine what you have seen or what you are feeling now. But one thing is true in America. It is true in Cambodia. You have two children. You are their father. You must care for them, yes?”

    He slowly nodded.

    “So, what kind of work do you think you could do?”

    After some prodding by my interpreter, the answer came back. “Farmer.”

    Now, I’m not sure what kind of response I was hoping for, but that was not it. As a condition of receiving public assistance, people in my employment program were required to do “job search,” actively look for employment. Ideally, I would help them to identify leads and even place them in positions. At minimum, I was required to document that they had applied for at least five jobs every week.

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