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Higher Highs and Lower Lows: Working with Justice-involved Youth — Part 1

May 18th, 2015

During the past few years I have had the privilege of training corrections staff who manage, educate or treat justice-involved youth in facilities/campuses or in the community. As a result, I have noticed that there seem to be some distinct differences in the professional experiences of staff who work with youth compared to the experiences of corrections staff who work with older, adult offenders.

These notable differences are most likely related to specific conditions that are inherent to working with justice-involved youth, and they may affect staff’s interactions with youth in both positive and negative ways.

Overall, especially in locked facilities, justice-involved youth tend to be more unpredictable, more likely to suffer from psychological disorders, more violent, and more likely to exhibit extreme behaviors than adult offenders are, on the average [1].

These youth tend to suffer from mood, anxiety, traumatic and substance abuse disorders, often with two or more conditions occurring at the same time — more so than adult offenders [1, 2, 3]. And they may be more at risk for attempted or completed suicides, self-injury, and other types of self-harm. Youth who suffer from PTSD, for example, due to their repeated exposure to trauma, may expect to die young. Therefore, their actions might reflect what to us is a shocking disregard for their welfare, their future, and even their very lives.

That is, compared to adult offenders, justice-involved youth may be less apt or able to “apply the brakes” on their impulses, or to think through potential consequences of their behavior, thus opting for reckless and destructive choices—including “throwing their lives away.”

The youths’ emotional volatility and higher impulsivity render them more dangerous to themselves and to others (staff included) than is the case with adult offenders.

The following are some of my observations regarding the professionals who work with justice-involved youth:

  1. On the whole, youth workers tend to (at least initially) invest emotionally more in the youth than corrections staff invest in adult offenders.

  2. Staff working with juveniles tend to derive deep satisfaction, and a sense of purpose and meaning, from progress made by the youth. In that regard they may enjoy more fulfillment than staff working with adult offenders. This satisfaction, though, can be offset by staff’s disappointment when youth lose ground. Disappointment negatively affects staff’s self-perception as effective helpers, with the ensuing disillusionment undermining the degree of their motivation and engagement in the work, and ultimately possibly reducing staff retention.

    So the highs tend to be higher and the lows lower for staff working with juvenile offenders, compared to those working with adults, due to the greater emotional investment in and greater hope for progress by the youth.

  3. Due to high assault rates in juvenile facilities both of other youth and of employees, staff end up exposed to more potentially traumatic events and physical injuries than may be the case in adult correctional settings (perhaps with the exception of maximum/high security facilities). And this occurs in a context where youth—because of their age—are managed differently than adult offenders, both physically and in terms of the overall philosophy of care, with the emphasis being on treatment.

Let us now examine issues affecting staff working with justice-involved youth in some detail.

Some Reasons for Staff’s Greater Emotional Investment

Youth workers, at least early on in their careers, are often characterized by enthusiasm and zeal. They are on a mission, sincerely wanting to help justice-involved youth heal from their all-too-often tormenting pasts and improve their lives. This usually leads staff to be persistent, teachable and engaged when dealing with the youth.

There are many reasons for the greater, on the average, emotional and relational investment of youth workers in their charges than that of corrections staff who work with older offenders. (Of course, there are always exceptions for staff working with either population.)

  1. The emphasis and approach regarding young offender management differ significantly from adult offender management. The approach with justice-involved youth tends to be more therapeutic than with adults, more heavily weighted toward treatment, mentoring and relationship building. Staff is trained and encouraged to build supportive relationships with the youth, to interact, to discuss issues, to offer guidance, comfort and encouragement, and to help them problem solve rationally and pro-socially—and within policy. That is, staff is trained to act as advisers, counselors and positive role models for the youth, as well as disciplinarians who administer consequences for poor choices.

    The underlying assumption is that younger offenders are still relatively “wet cement,” less “hardened” or set in their thinking and behaviors than adult offenders, since they are still growing and maturing. Consequently, there is an ex-pectation that services designed to teach pro-social behavior and bring about healing are more likely to succeed with youth than with older offenders. As a result, staff may be more hopeful of positive outcomes with youth and try hard-er to bring about enduring improvements than when working with older offenders.

  2. Due to their specialized youth-focused training, youth workers may also be aware, more so than with adults, of neurological issues affecting youth, such as fetal alcohol syndrome and/or other drug exposure in the womb, traumatic brain injuries, and consequences of their own drug abuse. Youth files may include details of their psychological abuse, neglect, abandonment, and physical injuries. And, perhaps most importantly, they are educated about the fact that regions of the brain (specifically, the prefrontal cortex) are not fully mature in adolescence. Rather, they continue to mature over the course of adolescence and into young adulthood [4,5]. These parts of the brain govern self-regulation, including decision making, planning for the future, foresight of consequences, risk-assessment, and judgment—capacities that typically associated with criminal culpability.

    Similar details regarding neurological problems may well be true of adult offenders, but they may not appear in their files, simply because they were not diagnosed; or no one asked the relevant questions; or offenders did not provide that information. Or, even if documented, some staff may not have access to adult offender files.

    Consequently, as they deal with each individual case, it may be easier for youth workers to “connect the dots” from a juvenile’s immature brain development (and also perhaps early childhood adverse experiences and neurological dam-age) to destructive choices and criminal behaviors. So, staff might empathize with the youth’s predicament and circumstances, “understanding” (without excusing) why they may have acted on impulse, violated others’ rights, and/or acted destructively and aggressively. And this awareness and empathy may increase their resolve to help youth less-en, if not overcome, negative aftereffects of adversity.

    Adult offenders, on the other hand, may be held to a higher standard in the minds of staff—as knowing right from wrong, and as being responsible for their choices (with the exception of the severely mentally ill).

  3. Another factor that contributes to staff’s greater investment is that youth may not be as able to hide behind a mask of toughness as well as older offenders. Rather, the youth may display their vulnerabilities more. They may express distress more, ask for help more, and break down openly more. That is, youth may tend to be more transparent, and so staff may be more likely to see their frailty, their emotional pain, and their very real need for help. This can lead (on average) to a desire to understand, to offer support, and to problem-solve instead of exhibiting indifference or being punitive. So youth workers may feel more compassion and a stronger urge to help than staff working with older offenders.
  4. Another subject that typically youth workers are trained on is that justice-involved youth are in the midst of negotiating “normal” social, emotional and physiological (hormonal) adolescent developmental stages 5. These developmental changes and milestones are occurring while the youth are also dealing with the inescapable realities of a still-maturing brain, and while also likely experiencing effects of past adverse experiences on body, soul, and spirit. Knowing these facts may prompt staff, once again, to be more understanding of certain behaviors, more caring, and perhaps more patient with youth than they would be with adult offenders.
  5. Staff may also identify with the youth more than with adults, for example, by remembering their own childhood emotional struggles and hardships, or the struggles of friends or siblings. Or, when dealing with the youth, they may reflect on their own children, and so form deeper emotional bonds to young offenders and be more impacted by their struggles, compared to staff working with adult offenders.

These factors contribute to youth workers’ more complex relationships with juveniles on the whole than corrections staff who work with adult offenders, including the building of attachments that evoke strong emotional responses in staff in relation to youths’ behaviors and outcomes of their involvement in the justice system.

To be continued in the June 2015 issue of the Correctional Oasis.

REFERENCES

[1] Abram, K.M., Choe, J.Y., Washburn, J.J., Teplin, L.A., King, D.C., Dulcan M.K., and Bassett E.D. Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors Among Detained Youth. Juvenile Justice Bulletin, July 2014.
[2] Dierkhising, C.B., Ko, J., Woods-Jaeger, B., Briggs, E.C., Lee, R., & Pynoos, R.S. (2013). Trauma histories among justice-involved youth: Findings from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 4, 20274.
[3] Kerig, P. K., and Julian D. Ford, J. D. (2014). Trauma among Girls in the Juvenile Justice System. National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
[4] Fagan, Jeffrey. Adolescents, Maturity, and the Law. The American Prospect. August, 2005.
[5] Adams, G. R., Montemayor, R., and Gullota, Thomas P. (Eds.) (1996). Psychosocial Development during Adolescence. Sage Publi-cations: Thousand Oaks, CA.

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