Youth Detention Facility finds culture of kindness more effective than punishment

A corner of the Multi-Sensory-De-escalation Room. All photos of the MSDR courtesy of Valerie Clark

When a young person enters the de-escalation room in the Sacramento County Youth Detention Facility, they’ll find dimmed lights, bottles of lavender, orange and other essential oils, an audio menu featuring the rush of ocean waves and other calming sounds, along with squeeze balls, TheraPutty, jigsaw puzzles, and an exercise ball to bounce on.

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TheraPutty, squeeze balls and more

Sometimes, with a teen’s permission, “We’ll put a weighted blanket on them, just to give them that hug that feels good, since we can’t give them [real] hugs in our facility,” says Valerie Clark, the probation officer who oversees the room. Giving hugs violates the protocol requiring that staff maintain healthy boundaries with their young charges. But “especially if someone is highly upset and just really crying,” Clark explains, the blanket can be a comforting substitute.

Since it first opened to youth in November 2016, the de-escalation room has been a refuge for kids feeling overwhelming anger, grief, sadness, and anxiety, who are either referred by staff or can request a visit. They stay in it anywhere from 30 minutes up to two hours.

The room is one example of how the Sacramento County Probation Department is shifting its culture to be responsive to adolescent trauma. In 2016, the department sponsored a countywide summit on trauma and the adolescent brain. This February and March, 330 employees from the Youth Detention Facility, and 155 from Juvenile Field, Placement and Court divisions, were trained in the roots of trauma and how to respond to it. And five members of the probation leadership were certified as trainers in trauma-informed practices. The training includes learning about how trauma in childhood can trigger the brain into fight, flight and freeze; can cause depression and lead to disruptive behaviors, and how they can build strength and resilience in the youth they serve.

Prior to having the de-escalation room, says Clark, youth would be sent to their individual rooms when they were disruptive or upset. “This way they have the opportunity to regain control of their emotions and behavior so they can go back to their programs instead of [having to stay] in their room alone with their thoughts,” she explains.

An impetus for the room, known as the Multi-Sensory De-escalation Room, was legislation that was signed into law in California in 2016, says Shaunda Cruz, the deputy chief of field services at the Sacramento County Probation Department and one of the department’s trauma-informed champions.

“The legislation recognizes the impact that trauma, and obviously the impact of coming into a facility, has on young people,” she says. The law, which was sponsored by former California State Senator Mark Leno, limits the use of solitary confinement for minors in detention facilities to four hours, and allows it only when juveniles’ behavior is considered a safety threat and less restrictive options have been exhausted.

Around the same time that the legislation was being developed, members of the county probation department and juvenile court staff were working on a capstone project through a justice reform collaborative out of Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform. That’s where the idea for an MSDR emerged, says Ruby Jones, assistant chief deputy of the Sacramento County Youth Detention Facility.

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