The high rate of abused and neglected children within the juvenile justice system was one of the themes percolating throughout a three-day conference on childhood trauma last week in San Francisco.
“The relationship between childhood trauma and juvenile justice involvement is pretty startling,” said Karleen Jakowski, supervisor of adolescent behavioral services at a non-profit health clinic in Yolo County. Jakowski was one of five juvenile justice panelists at the conference calling for improvement in the treatment of traumatized youth.
A Florida study on youthful offenders, which was often cited by the panel, found one in four minors had five or more Adverse Childhood Experiences, better known as ACEs. Not only are the juvenile justice-involved youth more likely to come from abusive, broken homes, the entire panel agreed that going to juvenile hall is in itself an traumatic event for most kids.
The term ACEs refers to the childhood abuse, neglect, and general household dysfunction that negatively affects a child’s development. Ranked on a scale of increasing severity from zero to 10, ACE scores of four or more are correlated with a greater likelihood of serious and long-lasting health and behavioral problems that may persist into adulthood.
The Center for Youth Wellness, a San Francisco children’s health clinic and advocacy organization, sponsored the conference, bringing together hundreds of healthcare professionals and advocates to help set the agenda for improved care in California. The event coincided with the release of the wellness center’s new study that called child trauma an under-examined public health issue facing more than 60 percent of California adults, who reported one or more ACEs.
Former Alameda County Chief Probation Officer David Muhammad, who now advocates for juvenile justice nationwide, said the system is broken and harms kids more than it does good.
Unlike the California prison system, which is a punitive system without rehabilitation mandates, the juvenile justice system’s purpose is to rehabilitate youth, not punish or warehouse them.
Probation normally assesses youth for risk, which can paint a picture of a child’s past, but Muhammad and Jakowski said that wasn’t good enough. They recommended screening all juveniles at the front door of probation with ACEs in order to get a better sense of how to treat those whose upbringings were wracked with trauma. Screening for ACEs requires asking personal questions, and should be performed by community health clinics and not law enforcement, Muhammad said.
“With youth, it is all about how we ask the questions,” said Jakowski, adding that talking with law enforcement can be intimidating and traumatizing. That can, in turn, evoke untruthful responses, especially on the subject of sexual abuse.
Jakowski recounted an anecdote of a teenage girl who had just been sexually assaulted. The police questioned her, asking questions like “How many sexual partners do you have?” and “How often do you have sex?”
“Kids have a BS detector,” she said. “They know when the people are there because they truly care.”
When the juvenile justice panel spoke on the link between child trauma and incarceration, they could have been talking about Nikko Martinez, a 21 year-old former foster youth living and working in the Bay Area.
Martinez has never taken the ACEs test, but if he did, he would score pretty high.
He grew up in a troubled household, with one family member in prison and another who struggled with substance abuse and homelessness.
At 14, Martinez got in a fistfight with a family member’s adult boyfriend and jabbed his finger into the boyfriend’s eye.
Martinez was sent to juvenile hall. For four months he stayed there, locked alone in a cell most of day. It wasn’t the first time. He’ d already been to juvenile hall a handful of times.
“There was no kind of reform,” said Martinez. “No learning your lesson.”
Juvenile court sentenced him to six months in a group home. He spent 14 months there because he had nowhere else to go. Eventually, Martinez was able to move in with a foster family he met in church.
Martinez’s life has turned around. He works two jobs, goes to San Francisco State University, and said he dreams of opening a group home that is focused on helping the community and giving back.
Brian Rinker is a graduate student of journalism and public health at the University of California, Berkeley.