How Can We Better Support Youth with Trauma Histories in the Juvenile Justice System?

According to a new analysis in Youth Today by Lauren Beretto, a member of the policy team at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, too many children and adolescents entering the juvenile justice system are being diagnosed with mental illness and medicated with psychotropic medications without adequate assessment and treatment for trauma and toxic stress caused by exposure to abuse, neglect, violence, and adversity.

This issue is relevant across the nation, but particularly so in California, given recent attention to the overuse of psychotropic medications on California’s foster care youth. The Sacramento Bee covered the subject extensively in 2014 in their five-part series “Drugging Our Kids.” According to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange and the Justice Policy Institute, being in the foster care system increases the risk of getting involved in the juvenile justice system, and the criminal justice system in adulthood.

Furthermore, entering the juvenile justice system can itself be traumatic for young people, and everything possible should be done to ensure that youth with trauma histories and mental health conditions receive help and support, not punishment and stigmatization. As Barretto notes, “failing to identify the needs of young people does not address the underlying cause of delinquent behavior, and therefore is ineffective treatment that promotes recidivism.”

What are some promising directions for policy change? Suggests Barretto: “All states must adapt detailed and individualized screening processes that can accurately assess underlying mental trauma of youth who commit offenses. Rehabilitation programs for youth must address trauma, be gender-specific and include research on the safety and effectiveness of psychotropic medicines for treating youth.”

What you can do:

  • Share this action alert in your social media and e-mail networks.
  • Educate yourself further on this critical issue by reading the new report by the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice: Better Solutions for Youth with Mental Health Needs in the Juvenile Justice System and exploring the resources at the Mental Health and Juvenile Justice Collaborative for Change’s Technical Assistance Center.
  • Send an email to your local legislator. Enter your zipcode and address below to send a quick email to recommend that trauma assessments for youth occur prior to adjudication, that appropriate trauma-specific treatments are incorporated into rehabilitation programs that serve youth, and that research is conducted to examine whether psychotropic medications are being used appropriately in this population. Feel free to edit your letter to make it more personal.