Jane Halladay, director of the service systems program at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which developed the Think Trauma curriculum for staff members in juvenile correctional facilities, remembers a young man who was very difficult to handle, especially first thing in the morning.
When he woke up, it was as if he had just emerged from battling demons in his dreams. “He was extremely confrontational, aggressive, ready for a fight,” Halladay says. “In treatment, it came out that the staff woke people up by turning on and off the lights — and it came out that he had once been stabbed in the neck and had come to in the ambulance.
“They understood the impact,” she says. “They made it a policy to wake him up every morning before they turned on and off the lights. All of his behavioral issues completely disappeared. He was a completely different youth.”
Youths convicted of offenses that land them in facilities to serve out their sentences have a disproportionately high number of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). One Florida study recently put hard numbers on this intuitive reality — half of the Florida juveniles reported four or more ACEs, compared with 13 percent of those in the CDC’s ACE Study.
This is important, because a high number of ACEs can cause chronic disease, mental illness, violence, being a victim of violence and early death. (See ACEs 101 for more information.)
After decades of get-tough policies that often morphed delinquent youth into hardened criminals — i.e., further traumatizing already traumatized kids — state, local and private facilities are developing ACE- and trauma-informed training for staff and systems for their facilities. They realize that the time these post-traumatic youth spend under their roofs can be a time for healing — if it’s handled right.
Six years ago, New York state asked staff members in the Division of Juvenile Justice and Opportunities for Youth to “evolve their understanding of their role,” says Joe Tomassone, acting associate commissioner for programs and services.