Cincinnati Juvenile Court Judge Kari Bloom recently admitted that nearly every defendant in her courtroom has a history of childhood trauma.
“Whether physical abuse, neglect from parents, abandonment, exposure to addiction and violence, or the evergreen effects of poverty," she wrote. "It's so common that we expect past trauma to be characteristic of the kids we serve."
Not every abuse victim becomes a problem adolescent, of course, but multiple studies establish an abuse/delinquency system connect. Congress held a Senate subcommittee hearing exploring the link as far back as 1986 where they determined that “75 percent of juvenile delinquents and prison inmates reported a family history of child abuse, including severe beatings, burns, strangulation, neglect, emotional abuse, and rape or incest.”
This by itself is not news. What is news is how easy it can be to break the chain. Repairing an abused child is easier with groceries in the refrigerator, clothes on their backs and a high-quality education filled with services and support, but these things are not central, says University of Toronto Sociology Professor Candace Kruttschnitt, who wrote “Abuse-Resistant Youth: Some Factors That May Inhibit Violent Criminal Behavior. More significant to the equation is the human element.
“Girls are stronger than boys in that regard, so the sex of the victim can mitigate the damage, and there’s other things like high I.Q,” Kruttschnitt told Black Girl Times. “But a third ‘resilience factor’ I noticed was the presence of a supportive other person. It could be an uncle who took a special interest or a schoolteacher who creates a more supportive environment. It doesn’t matter what context it’s in, but somebody who gives you exactly what you need, the love and care that you need. They can make all the difference.”
Kruttschnitt did not doubt that most children before Judge Bloom suffered abuse, but her career of personal interviews suggest that only about 25% of abused kids go on to have some kind of criminal justice record.
If anything, the damage might lead to psychological problems later in life. A child suffering significant stress may sometimes perceive threats during person-on-person interactions that other people consider neutral, and they may act rashly when unprovoked. This same child can sometimes grow into a short-tempered adult who freaks out over simple misunderstandings or ill-perceived threats. But there is no guarantee this kid will even express anger management issues as an adult. It takes a lot to create a detached, surly person incapable of forming healthy bonds with other people. And it takes much more than bad parenting to create a juvenile delinquent. To mix up the witch’s brew right you need additional complications like parental criminality, family addiction, and the total absence of any caring, attentive adult.
That, say experts, is a gory factory floor accident, and the intervention required to fix something like that needs to be nosy, intrusive, and relentless.
“What has really borne out in my experience is addressing a young person’s needs holistically, through a continuum of care,” said juvenile justice expert Lashunda Hill. “A roof, groceries, clothes, and a high-quality education is great, but that’s just the first thing. Kids don’t stand on their own. They have to be part of families and communities.”
Hill pointed to persistent intervention programs like ROCA as an example with a proven track record. ROCA works with young men and young mothers between the age of 16 and 24, and it’s more invasive than bed bugs. The program focuses on “relentless outreach and follow up” using youth workers, educators, work crew supervisors, and life skill coaches who focus on kids’ cognitive behavioral therapy. Through a series of “emotional regulation” sessions, combined with endless education and career skills training, the program reduces arrests and technical violations and increases employment retention. It recorded a 95% success rate in preventing re-incarceration for participants in Baltimore and a 96% success rate in Massachusetts.
Other organizations like Youth Advocate Programs, Inc (YAP) follow ROCA’s multi-front assault and swear by it. The most successful programs, says Hill, also include multigenerational therapy that extends beyond the affected child and works with parents.
“Often the trauma is multigenerational, so when a kid comes to you for services or comes into contact with the system the system needs to find ways to support that child’s mother, that child’s father, their uncle, their auntie, their sister or brother or grandmother, so they have a supportive network of adults around them who are also in the process of healing and have what they need to back-support the thriving of that child,” said Hill. “That’s really important.”
All this intensive meddling goes to underscore the incredible value of a single, invested adult in one child’s life. If there’s nobody stepping up to the plate, however, filling the vacuum requires a battalion of busybodies. This kind of attention doesn’t come cheap, but not having it risks feeding a monster that’s already gobbling a significant portion of U.S. resources.
The U.S. incarceration system costs “an aggregate burden of $1 trillion dollars” as far back as 2016. This “approaches 6%” of the nation’s gross domestic product, according to the National Institute of Corrections. And it doesn’t even work, judging by the nation’s recidivism rate. The U.S. locks up more people per capita than any other nation on the planet, yet two of every three people it released were arrested for new charges, according to The Harvard Political Review. Another study estimated that two-thirds (68 percent) of 405,000 prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within three years of release.
“(Youth intervention) takes a lot of resources and money, but what you’re looking at reaps countless benefits in the long term,” Hill said. “It is a moral imperative, but it’s also in our best interest. These kids are the future of our neighborhoods, communities, and society. We can’t afford to give up on them. And the results of your investment are just so beautiful.”