Thursday, May 22, 2014

Criminalizing Trauma

Yesterday, I wrote about children with trauma histories and behavioral challenges, and I encouraged my readers to think of such children as "hurt" rather than "bad." Today, I invite you to take that a step further and think about what happens when youth with untreated trauma histories begin encountering the criminal justice system.

According to data collected by The National Crittenton Foundation in 2011 more than 62 percent of surveyed girls involved in juvenile justice had been exposed to "four or more forms of adverse childhood experiences," including violence.

What the statistics also don't tell us is how girls cope with the dangerous, damaging and traumatic circumstances in their lives. In fact, their "adaptive coping behaviors," including running away from homes where violence is prevalent, self medication with drugs and alcohol, truancy and unruly behavior, are the very same behaviors that put them at risk of entering the juvenile justice system because they are detained for a status offence.  
In other words, we criminalize them for coping behaviors that are actually signs of strength and resiliency against the abuse and neglect they have experienced.

-- Jeannette Pai-Espinosa, "Five Ways to Stop Criminalizing Victimized Girls," Women's eNews

Consider this in light of what I wrote yesterday: "The ability to adapt to threatening environments with survivalist strategies is an inherent part of our human nature."

What does it say about us as a society when we fail to protect children from harm and then penalize them for coping strategies? What can be done to interrupt this cycle?

We can begin by supporting organizations like the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, as recommended in the Women's eNews article, but we must also think about ways to intervene in children's lives earlier on, to prevent harm when possible and to help children heal from trauma when traumatizing events do occur. 

(In my next post I'll be talking about some strategies for early intervention.)

Image courtesy of sakhorn38 /


  1. Really enjoying your new blog. Keep it up.

  2. Hi Rebecca, I am waiting [rather impatiently, I'm sorry to admit] for your next post. Short story: Looking for simple evidence on how to support teen mothers (to help keep their families together and move out of poverty--oh and they all come from a place of trauma). I know, informally, I've heard over the years the most effective vehicle is relationship---yet I'm having trouble finding specific studies that "prove" it. I know your insight will be helpful because it always is. Thanks again for the excellent post!

    1. Thanks! I hadn't planned on addressing that specifically. I definitely have an interest in supporting teen parents and helping families move out of poverty, and I'm sure those topics will come up in future posts, but I'm not aware of such studies either. I will keep my eyes open though!

    2. Thanks...intervention strategies are always good and I'll look forward to hearing your insight. Of course, the earlier, the better.