Mental Health and the Juvenile Justice System

By Elena Cohen
Director, Safe Start Center

Most youth who are involved in the juvenile justice system have been exposed to both community and family violence and many have been threatened with, or been the direct target of, such violence. We know that youth who have multiple exposures to violence or victimization are at higher risk for mental health problems, behavioral problems, substance abuse, and delinquent behaviors.   The effect of exposure to violence is cumulative: the greater the number and type of victimization experiences that a child experiences, the greater the risks to a child’s development and his or her emotional and physical health.

Youth who are victimized by abuse, and are exposed to other forms of violence, often lose their trust in the adults who are either responsible for perpetrating the abuse or who fail to protect them. Victimization is a violation of our social contract with youth and can create a deep disregard both for adults in general and the rules that adults have set. Distrust and disregard for adults, rules, and laws place youth at a much greater risk for delinquency and other inappropriate behaviors.

The juvenile justice system is composed of many interconnected organizations that have as their goals protecting society, safeguarding the youth and families that come to its attention, and holding delinquent youth accountable while supporting their rehabilitation.   In order to successfully meet these sometimes contradictory goals, the system, and especially the juvenile court system and judges, are asked to understand the underlying factors that affect the lives of juveniles and their families. To be most effective in achieving its mission, the different organizations that compose the juvenile justice system must both understand the impact of exposure to violence in the lives of children and engage resources and evidence-based interventions to support healing.

In recent years, the science of brain and adolescent development, coupled with increasing emphasis on empirically supported policies and practices, has changed the course of juvenile justice. Many jurisdictions and practitioners emphasize strength-based approaches. These are centered on meeting the multiple, complex needs of youth and their families, while also preventing out-of-home placements, court involvement, detention and incarceration.    Many members of the juvenile justice system are well aware of this knowledge gap and have expressed strong interest in becoming more informed about exposure to violence and victimization.

The following are some of the practices that judges have put in place:

•             Using mental health professionals to assess youth and identify youth who are suffering from exposure to traumatic events.  Some of the validated trauma screening tools that are used include: UCLA PTSD Reaction Index; Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children; Trauma Symptom Checklist for Young Children (TSCYC).

•             If there are few available programs or trained professionals in the community,  some jurisdictions have joined with groups to increase community awareness of the impact of children’s exposure to violence and evidence-based practices and necessary training requirement.

•             Referring youth who have been exposed to violence and families to practitioners or agencies that understand the impact of trauma on children and can provide evidence-based treatment appropriate to the child’s needs  Evidence-based treatment practices are those that have been rigorously studied and found to be effective in treating child or adolescent trauma. Information on specific evidence-based treatments for children exposed to violence is available from:

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Crime Solutions




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