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


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).


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 approach of the overwhelming majority of these detention centers is  warehouse, control and punish. Only 10 percent to 20 percent of these facilities are making changes, according to one estimate, and most of those aren’t using evidence-based practices based on the model programs guide put together by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

From super-predators to traumatized teens

In the 1990s, the United States was gripped in a national hysteria about teenage “super-predators” that had escalated with the rise in youth violence. Although juvenile crime took a nosedive in the 1990s, the number of kids in detention continued to skyrocket, more than doubling from 13,000 to 28,000 between 1985 and 1997, even though only 30 percent had committed violent crime, and many of those were misdemeanors.


The percentage of detained juveniles living in overcrowded detention centers zoomed from 20 percent to 60 percent, says Nate Balis, director of Casey’s Juvenile Justice Strategies Group. “They were double- and triple-bunked, bursting at the seams,” he says, “which I would argue would be trauma-inducing for kids.”

Recognizing that throwing every kid into detention was a road to nowhere, the Annie E. Casey Foundation launched the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative in 1992. The research was clear: Putting all kids who committed a crime, even if their crime was minor and they were of little or no threat to public safety, into a locked and crowded detention center increased the likelihood that they would end up serving time, and would torpedo any chance they had for turning their lives around. The get-tough policy was backfiring by ruining kids’ lives.

“The work of JDAI was to argue, wait a minute, do we need to expand the footprint [of detention centers] or should we scrutinize why kids were being locked up in the first place?” says Balis. “Do they pose a safety threat? Are they at risk of failing to appear in court?”

JDAI began with five local jurisdictions and has spread during the past 22 years to 39 states and about 300 localities. The detention centers have seen an average decline in their daily population of 45 percent, Balis says. By 2013, 56 sites had closed detention units with 2,050 beds, saving an estimated $143 million each year. And almost all jurisdictions have seen a decline in their crime rates, which means that allowing youth to stay at home or in a group home hasn’t meant an increase in crime, he says.

In the past half-dozen years or so, the move to find detention alternatives has gained momentum and tracked closely the principles of JDAI—collaborating across agencies, using data-driven decision-making, developing objective admissions criteria, thinking carefully about detention alternatives that are available, working to expedite case processing, reducing racial disparities and paying close attention to special cases like parole violations.

While that list of principles governs whether kids are put in detention or stay home before their trials, JDAI also lays out standards within detention centers to reduce solitary confinement and to ensure that kids are held only as long as necessary, Balis says.

““The experience of being confined becomes more traumatic over time,” he says. “The idea that while they’re in detention, they are getting therapeutic services that could address trauma or anything else, is a good thing. The fear that we often have is that keeping kids in detention longer than necessary because they’re getting services leads to an oxymoron of having the kid one day longer in detention to address trauma—yet detention is a naturally traumatic experience.”

One of the big changes between the early 1990s and now is research that shows how kids who get into trouble, including committing crime and violence, are usually acting out of their own traumatic childhoods.

High rates of childhood trauma can result in adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence, according to the Kaiser-CDC Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study). The study measured 10 types of childhood trauma: sexual, physical and verbal abuse, and physical and emotional neglect; and five types of family dysfunction – witnessing a mother being abused, a household member who’s alcoholic or drug dependent, who’s been imprisoned, or diagnosed with mental illness, or loss of a parent through separation, divorce or other reason.(Got Your ACE Score?) Of course there are other types of trauma — such as bullying, community violence, homelessness, moving often, racism, and gender discrimination — but the ACE Study measured only 10.

The study found that of the 17,000 mostly white, middle class, college educated, Kaiser health-insured adults who participated in the ACE Study, nearly two-thirds experienced at least one type of severe childhood trauma. About 40% had suffered two or more. The study found that a person with four or more adverse childhood experiences is 12 times more likely to attempt suicide, 10 times more likely to inject street drugs, seven times more likely to be an alcoholic, two-and-a-half times more likely to have a stroke, and twice as likely to have cancer. The lifespans of people with ACE scores of 6 are shortened by 20 years. ACE studies have now been done in 29 states and Washington, D.C., with similar results.

When children experience trauma, their brains instantly react by going into fight, flight or freeze mode. They produce an overload of stress hormones — such as cortisol and adrenaline — that harm the function and structure of their brain. This is called “toxic” stress.

If they have no safe adult living in a safe environment to rely on, children with toxic stress respond to the world as a place of constant danger. With their brains overloaded with stress hormones and unable to function appropriately, they can’t focus on learning. They fall behind in school, fail to develop healthy relationships with peers, or create problems with teachers and principals because they are unable to trust adults. Some kids do all three.

With despair, guilt and frustration pecking away at their psyches, they often find solace in food, alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamines, violence, crime, inappropriate sex, high-risk sports, and/or work and over-achievement. They don’t regard these coping methods as problems. Consciously or unconsciously, they use them as solutions to escape from depression, anxiety, anger, fear and shame.

This doesn’t excuse their behavior, ACEs experts say, but the solution to helping them to heal so that they won’t commit more crime is to help them resolve their underlying issues, instead of putting them in a system that further traumatizes them.

Those involved with JDAI say that creating trauma-informed systems has certainly meant a decrease in trauma, because fewer kids are locked up in the first place, Balis says. “If a system is truly going to be trauma-informed, that has to be a system that avoids the use of detention, incarceration and out-of-home placement at all costs,” he says. Detention should be used “rarely, for short periods of time, and only when a young person presents a serious risk to safety.”

And, for those who are incarcerated, they receive considerably more physical and emotional space. “With the depopulation, the safe reduction of using [detention] centers for kids, it is a lot easier to do right by the kids in a 60-bed detention center that has 20 kids in it, than one that has 90 kids in it,” Balis says. “Imagine what you can provide and do for the young people in your care. Anyone would sign up for today’s version.”

Bernalillo County, NM, signed up for JDAI early on, in the late 1990s, when its 78-bed facility housed 130 youth, says Gerry Bachicha, JDAI administrator. Since then, the average daily population has fallen by more than half and the average length of stay is “well below what we’ve started with,” although it’s inched up slightly the past couple years as the facility has become more tightly focused on higher-risk kids.

The county has embedded case managers in the process to help expedite both the court calendar and mental health evaluations, Bachicha says. And Bernalillo has focused on detaining youth who present a safety risk—but not necessarily those who are simply high-need, who can be helped through community mental health facilities.

Kendra Kec
Kendra Kec

Lucas County became a JDAI site in 2009 and learned through the initial assessment that county government was attempting to do too much itself. “They pointed out that we were doing a lot of it in-house, in the traditional government methodology way,” says Kendra Kec, assistant court administrator for Lucas County Juvenile Court. “We concentrated on, ‘How do we grow what we do in-house to get community buy-in and partner with the many different entities in the community to develop broader and better programming?’ ”

The county has definitely benefited from the JDAI approach to not put youth into detention if they don’t need to be there, Kec says. “If it’s a low-level offense, we don’t want to re-traumatize kids by putting them in detention,” she says. “You’re inherently reducing the trauma by getting them that upfront evaluation. Instead of going to detention, they’re sitting down and meeting with social workers and hopefully addressing their needs.”

According to JDAI, before Lucas County was a JDAI site, it sent 76 youth into Ohio’s youth prison system. By 2014, it sent  just 18 kids to prison.


Carol Cramer Brooks, CEO of the National Partnership for Juvenile Services (NPJS), credits the success of the broader movement in juvenile justice reform with helping to put mental health needs on the radar of detention center leaders. “Detention centers realized the youth we were serving had a lot more mental health needs and a lot more co-occurring disorders … and oh, by the way, they’re also all suffering from some form of trauma,” she says. “They have been very, very successful [in recognizing that connection], and we’re thankful for that, in changing the population in our detention centers. Their terminology is getting the ‘right kids’ in detention.”

Those who don’t need the intensive services are “diverted to community programs,” she says, “so youth who don’t really need to be locked up have options in the community.” Some are put on an electronic tether, or assigned to a day or evening reporting center, or assigned to probation. Some, who “don’t really need anything” as they await trial, “are just encouraged to go to Boys & Girls Clubs.”

Juvenile detention centers not as advanced

Although JDAI’s Balis hopes that while kids are in detention, they’re receiving therapeutic services that could address trauma, most juvenile detention centers—where youth under 18 charged with a serious crime are housed before trial—take a decades-old attitude of “We’re detention, we’re pre-adjudicated, we don’t do treatment,” says Brooks. In fact one of the key principles that JDAI is addressing is based on the fact that violence and maltreatment remain widespread in juvenile detention facilities nationwide.

A few juvenile detention centers have started to make some changes. “It’s small,” says Brooks, “10 to 20 percent of the total. One of the key reasons short-term detention centers have shied away from implementing a formal (trauma-informed) model is they feel, ‘We don’t have kids that long, so we couldn’t possibly do that [program] with any sense of fidelity.’ ”

“They screen for mental health, they screen for risk of suicide, but none of those screenings really cover the impact of trauma on a youth’s life,” she says.

Among the first facilities to move from strict punishment to a more therapeutic approach was the Randall County Juvenile Probation Department in Amarillo, TX, which opened a new facility in 1993. It was dedicated to holistic programming rather than just “warehousing kids,” says Barry Gilbert, director of training for the department.

Randall County uses the Rational Behavior Training methodology developed by psychiatrist and author Max Maultsby (a derivative of Rational Emotive Behavior Training, developed by Albert Ellis), which is based around the carrots of earned privileges like extra movie-watching time, rather than the sticks of punishment like solitary confinement.

Jane King
Jane King

“To increase positive behaviors, you must offer an environment that rewards those behaviors in a way that appeals to the young people; while at the same time teaching them new skills and ways to handle their very real and significant problems,” says Jane King, director of probation in Randall County.

“We start teaching them about the connection between what you tell yourself and the way you feel, and the way you act,” says Gilbert. “See if the things you tell yourself are rational. If not, do you want to change the way you feel? Do you want to change the way you act? And therefore change the outside consequences?”

RBT, which is not included in the model programs identified by the OJJDP in the U.S. Department of Justice, stops short of being trauma-informed. It’s also not based on brain science, which shows that traumatized kids have to know that they’re safe before they move out of survival mode and into thinking clearly. A situation that triggers their trauma can send them into their coping strategies, which may include violence and drug use.

As part of the facility’s discipline management process, youth must complete an assessment of incidents that led up to them being sanctioned, Gilbert says. The purpose of that is “to look at what happened, what you told yourself, and how you can change the next time,” he says. “It’s a therapeutic process that’s built into the disciplinary process. For a lot of kids, that’s where they get the connection: ‘I picked up a chair and threw it at a staff member and cussed him out because I was mad at the staff.’ When they go back and look at it, they weren’t mad at the staff, they were mad at something else.” And they are prompted to ask themselves: “What do I need to change about my whole thought process?”

Barry Gilbert
Barry Gilbert

Randall County trains its staff with what Gilbert terms “the five universal truths of human communication,” which help centers to avoid re-traumatizing youth, he says. These are:

  • People would like to be treated with dignity and respect.
  • People would like to be asked rather than told.
  • People would like to be told why they are being asked.
  • People would like to get options than threats.
  • People would like to get a second chance.

“That’s the underpinning of what we do here,” Gilbert says. “We’ve been challenging kids to rise above their circumstances for 22 years. We’ve been challenging kids not to re-victimize themselves. We’ve been challenging kids not to blame their behavior on their past—which is not to say you aren’t a product of your past.”

He adds: “We want kids to change their thinking because you change the way you feel and the way you act. You can’t go back and change the things that were done to you, but you can change how you think about those things, whether it is traumatization, generational criminal behavior within your own family, gang involvement, drug involvement.”

The detention center in Lucas County, OH, which serves the city of Toledo, trained staff in RBT about a decade ago, says Lucas County Juvenile Court assistant court administrator Kendra Kec. The county’s system tries to not expose youth to additional trauma by using a thoughtful behavioral management system rather than solitary confinement, she says.

The facility will occasionally remove a youth to his or her room until acting out deescalates, Kec adds, “but to say that a youth is sentenced to solitary for seven days, we do not do that. … Youth do need to be removed [from the general population] to deescalate certain behavior. Unit safety is always first.”

The detention center uses a sequenced series of time-outs that encourage youth to take responsibility and own up to whatever got them in trouble in the first place.

“To take responsibility means to look at … what triggered the situation and then the behavior and the consequence they received,” she says. “And then they have to look at all the alternatives of what they might do next time, and evaluate how they might change their behavior. They review that with the detention officer prior to rejoining the program.”

And if in that process an underlying issue is identified, the youth might be referred for therapy. This doesn’t take place at the facility, Kec says, although a staff mental health social worker helps to make the referrals, of which more than 300 occurred in 2014.

If a youth’s behavior becomes completely out of control, he or she can be placed into “administrative intervention,” Kec says, which means the youth is overseen by a therapist and a detention administrator. Kids are provided behavioral plans they can follow to work their way back into the larger population of detainees.

“For the safety of the facility, the child might be placed on this plan until they can safely rejoin,” she says. “But as far as room time or isolation as a form of punishment, we do not do that at all. Every time a child is placed in his or her own room, they are given instructions as to what they have to do to earn their way back into the programming.” The time intervals for room placement start at 30 minutes and continue upward in 30- and 60-minute intervals, she adds.

And once they do so, they can continue earning privileges for good behavior, Kec adds. “They want to be able to earn their coupons to get extra things from the commissary,” she says. “They want to be able to earn their points, to go to a pod party at the end of the week.”

BCJC+PhotoThe Berrien County, MI, Juvenile Detention Center also adopted the RBT approach about a decade ago. Director Richard Dama, a licensed mental health therapist, does not consider RBT to be trauma-informed care, although he definitely sees it as a vast improvement over the “custodial mentality” that he saw remnants of when he first arrived.

“We have, over the past several years, evolved from a detention center with a treatment program, to a treatment program that happens to detain kids—it’s a complete, 180-degree shift in philosophy and programming,” Dama says. “We tell the kids, ‘It’s our job to keep you here.’ We also tell them, ‘During that time, we are going to help you figure out what it is you did, and how it is you were thinking that led you to be here, so hopefully you don’t have to come back.’ ”

Dama and his assistant director, Terry Martinek, who is president of the NPJS’s Council for Detention, speak at conferences and trainings around the country about Berrien County’s reforms. “The first thing we tell the group is, we are not in the punishment business; we are in the restorative justice business,” Dama says. “We are trying to turn these kids around, so they think and act like responsible citizens.”

In Berrien County, the RBT approach took hold after repeated fights among kids that staff had to break up, Martinek says. “We had a high number of staff injuries resulting in lost time at work. It got to the point where it was decided we needed to do something different.”

During the last 10 years, Martinek says, violent incidents have dropped between 70 percent and 80 percent. They try to praise and reward youth in their care at least four times as often as they experience a negative consequence, he says. “The staff spends a lot of time talking with young people. We give them respect. That’s not to say they don’t get defiant, but we try to do everything we can to center them.”

The facility runs at least 21 groups per week on subjects ranging from anger management to accepting authority in which detainees are taught how to disagree agreeably. “Youth use those tools in communicating with staff,” he says.

Similar to the system in Lucas County, those who need a negative consequence start with a 5-minute time-out, where they’re asked to sit in the corner and analyze their behavior, then report back to staff about how they plan to change their behavior in the future. Those who resist doing so are given an additional 30-minute time out, usually in a hallway in the staff office area, within view of a camera. But “they never get out of the 5-minute consequence they earned at the beginning,” Martinek says. “They know that. We teach that. They will tell other students, ‘If you earn a consequence, just take it.’ ”

And if they become sexually or physically aggressive toward staff, they are locked in their room for 30 minutes, then given 30 minutes on a chair in the hallway before returning for their initial 5 minutes, Dama says. “We don’t approach it as a punishment,” he says. “It’s just an opportunity for youngsters to deescalate themselves: ‘My behavior has gotten me into this situation. How did I get here, and what can I do differently next time?’ ”

Staff encourage this thought process, Dama says. “They’ll challenge the youth: ‘What are you thinking?’ What’s driving these behaviors?’ ” he says. “We also teach the staff and residents to ignore a lot [of acting out].” And staff attempt to “catch kids doing things right,” he adds. “We will reward them with a coupon [toward a desired activity].”

“A lot of people believe you’re giving up your staff authority. You’re not. We’re just asking the children to think about their behavior,” Martinek says.

And the facility has prompted youth to reach that point without restraining them or putting them in solitary confinement for three days, which goes against trauma-informed principles, Martinek says. Even for those who are put in their rooms for 30 minutes, “It’s not solitary confinement by any means,” Dama says. “Clinical staff check with them several times. Teachers go back and give them worksheets and check in with them. Staff lay eyes on them every 15 minutes.

Tom Jarlock
Tom Jarlock

Tom Jarlock, executive director of Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center in Covington, LA, steered his institution toward trauma-informed care based on the ACE Study after he arrived a decade ago. “I could not believe that this institutional model I saw was being used on kids,” he says. “We have 50 years of research in juvenile justice. We know boot camps don’t work; they increase recidivism. Institutional models don’t work. They prepare kids for institutionalization. I’m not afraid to think outside the box.”

In evolving from an institutional to a caregiver model, Florida Parishes has implemented Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, an OJJDP model program in which staff encourage youth to closely examine their own behavior and think about how they could change, Jarlock says.

“CBT is the infrastructure that feeds the many things we do,” he says.

The shift from an institutional model requires a move from tenets of structure, authority and a violent response to challenges, to asking staff to “take more of a shepherd’s response,” Jarlock says. “It’s a lot easier to sit behind the desk and do the institutional model. It’s more difficult to ask if there are alternative ways to provide this service, are there ways to preserve the dignity of the human beings in our care.”

“The need to have children inside juvenile detention centers is always going to be with us,” says Jarlock. “How do we protect these kids from becoming habituated to incarceration? … I want kids to say, ‘Those people helped me change my life.’ Instead, you hear, ‘I got my ass beat in there.’ ”

Florida Parishes’ staff experienced about a 60 percent turnover in the first 18 months after instituting CBT, because some believed it was “psychological mumbo-jumbo and pined for the old days when you could just kick kids around,” Jarlock says. “Instead of teaching kids a lesson through violence, we now teach kids social skills. … We do teach kids lessons. It’s just no longer the school of hard knocks.”

Although not all practices trauma-informed, results are promising

Berrien County has seen a drop in youth readmitted a second time from 36 percent in 2003, the year before RBT was implemented, to 18.6 percent in 2013, although that number has fluctuated up and down somewhat and reached as high as 28 percent as recently as 2010. Third admissions have fallen from 23 percent in 2003 to 13.4 percent in 2013, fluctuating between 7 percent and 19 percent in the intervening years. However, the percentage of youth admitted four or more times has not fallen significantly.

In Florida Parishes, Jarlock has seen a significant drop in time lost to staff injuries as a result of “tussles” with youth. Ten people were out with injuries when he was first hired, some as a result of trying to break up fights among detainees. “After teaching our staff how to deescalate behaviors, and understanding what comes next, the reduction has been very notable,” he says.

“Ten years ago, there would be at least one full-on restraint, fight between kids, or fight between kids and staff, every day,” Jarlock says. “Now it’s one or two times per month. Before we resorted to force; now we find out what’s going on and spend 30 or 45 minutes with them. The kid is obviously asking for help—how can we find out what he needs? Ten years ago, we used pepper spray and made liberal use of handcuffs. That’s all gone now.”

Jarlock says one staff member at Florida Parishes first came to know the facility as a detainee in 2005 and 2008. “He can tell you how it was at the beginning [of the reform], how it was midway through, and now how it is as an employee,” he says. “It was really rough at first, and by the second visit he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He’s the staff member the kids love the most because they identify with him.”

When youth in Florida Parishes’ care know they can get help, that’s when juvenile detention centers know they’ve made headway, Jarlock says. “We don’t want kids to lash out and get pissed off,” he says. “When you get a kid to stop and think, you’ve won the battle. That’s a human being who’s considering his options, rather than reacting to stimuli. Most of these kids have experienced adverse childhood events. We’re seeing them through the eyes of someone who understands trauma.”

“The crux of the matter is that these youth are intrinsically valuable human beings who have made some incredibly bad choices, and therefore they should be treated with dignity and respect while holding them accountable for those choices,” King says.

Next:  Culture change — Traditional juvenile correctional facilities are out, trauma- and ACE-informed residential homes are in.


  1. Thank you for the article. I found much heart-full and use-full information.
    The “five universal truths of human communication which help centers to avoid re-traumatizing” people stood out:
    People would like to be treated with dignity and respect.
    People would like to be asked rather than told.
    People would like to be told why they are being asked.
    People would like to get options than threats.
    People would like to get a second chance.

    Can you assist me to connect with folks who aware of using these truths in training/other work in mental health organizations?
    In searching for sources I found 2 from law enforcement backgrounds:
    Dr. George Thompson, co-author of the book Verbal Judo and related training, and
    Gary T. Klugiewicz, a trainer in non-escalation of conflict and reduce the need for de-escalation tactics.

    I serve in a community based non-profit therapeutic arts program for adults who have been given a diagnosis that qualifies as a SM – serious mental illness. I develop and make use of resources to facilitate healing communication, especially related to trauma-sensitive and trauma-informed services.


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