For Those Who Work with Youth in Conflict with the Law
Consider the following three vignettes:
- A middle-aged man overdoses on crack cocaine and is found dead in a rooming house by the landlord (…after his parole officer phones with regard to his whereabouts).
- A teenager is caught breaking into a house in a suburban part of a city by the police (…who have been tailing him because of a record of similar offenses).
- A young boy, of elementary school age, is repeatedly mocked and beaten by his stepfather, sometimes as “punishment,” sometimes without explanation (…no one ever finds out).
Each of these vignettes is about the same person.
. . .
Sometimes my work involves going into federal penitentiaries to meet adult offenders or youth in conflict. Behind prison walls, I listen as people share about their crimes, and some stories involve significant harm. I hear denial. I hear blame. I hear remorse, accountability, and shame – self-loathing – a gamut of conflicted feelings.
The more I listen, the more I discover that many offenders carry histories of victimization and have endured traumatic childhoods. They were abused. If I walked in their shoes or lived through what many of them have endured, would I be in jail too? Responding affirmatively to this question is not to excuse harm or diminish responsibility. Not everyone who is hurt goes on to hurt others, but it is a way to understand certain behaviours – it provides a context, an explanation.
Reason 1: The vast majority of youth who break the law are trauma survivors.
Research consistently shows that as many as 90 percent of young offenders (age 12 to 17) have experienced some sort of trauma in their childhood.
Individual traumas such as:
- Family violence
- Sexual abuse
Collective traumas such as:
- Male violence
- Colonialism (in the case of Indigenous peoples)
Traumatized youth are struggling to cope with overwhelming experiences. Trauma survivors often struggle with:
- Mental health challenges – for example, depression and anxiety
- Addictions – using substances to cope with overwhelming feelings
- Relationships – knowing how to trust others; knowing how to deal with stress and conflict
- Harmful behaviours – towards self or other people
Most trauma survivors don’t break the law. However, the vast majority of youth who do break the law have experienced trauma.
Enter the youth justice system focused on punishing criminal behaviours.
Reason 2: Traditional youth justice responses often retraumatize young offenders.
Further into my work with adults behind bars, I heard that many first came into conflict with the law when they were teenagers. Why are they still here, in prison, many decades later? What happens when we punish with minimal regard for the context that influences crime?
Evidence suggests that contact with the justice system contributes more toward youth reoffending in the future than it discourages crime. Youth justice premised on punishment doesn’t work. It adds more trauma.
Without attention to helping young offenders heal from trauma, we’ll make things worse and the likelihood of future crime will increase.
What is to be done?
Reason 3: Being trauma-informed is effective for community safety and well-being.
- A trauma-informed approach means that we bring an awareness of the impacts of trauma on our work in youth justice.
- A trauma-informed approach means that we shape interventions on principles of trauma healing, resilience, and restorative justice rather than on punishment.
- A primary principle of trauma healing is establishing physical and emotional safety, so a person can grieve the pain and meaningfully reconnect with others.
- Resilience is a person’s capacity to deal with adversity. One way to support resilience in young people is to consistently honour their strengths instead of focusing on what’s wrong with them.
- Restorative justice emphasizes meeting the needs of victims, offenders, and communities in the aftermath of harm.
3. A trauma-informed approach doesn’t diminish accountability – or consequences for harmful behaviour. It nests accountability within a context of support.
- A trauma-informed approach is a commitment to do no further harm. We must assess youth justice practices, from policing to corrections, from probation to counselling, to make sure that we are not adding further trauma to young people.
- A trauma-informed approach moves beyond incidents to addressing underlying social issues. Indigenous youth are dramatically overrepresented in the youth justice system. Ongoing cycles of settler colonialism that have caused intergenerational traumas in Indigenous communities must be addressed. Patriarchal male violence – the primary root cause of most family violence and sexual abuse – must also be addressed, as should poverty and growing inequality.
. . .
I hope for a trauma-informed movement that prevents violence from happening in the first place. Where it does occur, I hope for interventions that interrupt cycles of trauma by creating safety, meaningful accountability, and healing.
Returning to the vignettes above, different outcomes – for the young boy, the teenager and the middle-aged man – are possible.
It’s time for a trauma-informed movement in youth justice:
- From counterproductive punishments, toward meaningful accountability
- From practices that isolate, toward creating connection, belonging, and hope
- From cycles of trauma, toward resiliency and healing
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