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.

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.


  1. i really enjoyed reading this article i wish their would of been a similiar curriclium when i was a juvinile to allow me to see and recognizemy childhood traumas growing up dcfs cps from the age of four months old to the age of fifeteen which is when i started to go to juvinile hall i believe i may of benifted from such curriculim up to this point i cant even recall prior to ten years old and younger im now thirtynine and still cannot remember my child hood keep up the good work i really appreiciate the work you are doing to save the youth giving them a chance caring its good work your doing


    • Thanks Thomas for writing in and sharing your thoughts and experiences. Your voice adds to the voices of others who know that trauma-sensitive programs can make a difference in young lives. Kind regards, Laurie


  2. Laurie Usesky – thank you so much for writing this article. It must be so hard for caring adults in the Youth Detention Facility to resist hugging these often abandoned children. The MSDR is an interesting concept. Retooling the adolescent brain is a slow and deliberate path to countering the effect of ACEs on a young person.

    Next month we embark on N.E.A.R. training here in Cortland, New York. Change is indeed up to us.

    As we learn more about the workings of the brain we begin to see the hate and malevolence around us is often the result of ACEs that others have endured. It behooves us to be mindful of this and tread lightly. We know not what heartbreaking horror has befallen others in their formative years.

    Kind regards,



  3. Hi, Jane and ACE’s people,

    We’d love to republish your excellent new story about the things that Sacramento is doing with their youth detention center, if that’s alright — with the usual links and credits, of course.

    Also, Jane I just now read your Donald Trump’s ACEs essay. I just loved it! It’s very calming to hear your voice on the topic of all that we’re living through of late.

    I hope all is well at your house. We’re doing fine. Feeling strange at times, like most. But doing okay.

    As always, we value your essential work.

    With much warmth,


    PS: Let me know if the repub is okay. xo

    Celeste Fremon Editor WitnessLA 310-455-1389 310-773-1389 – cell



  4. The psychological literature for decades has said rewards work better than punishment at changing behavior.


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