The recent report from the Office of Child Advocate titled Investigative Facility Report Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS) and Pueblo Unit (June 22, 2015) states that the vast majority of children and youth at CJTS and Pueblo have “histories of trauma, abuse, neglect, complex psychiatric disorders and special education needs.”
It then goes on to detail the use of isolation and restraints as behavior management strategies or for discipline even in non-emergency situations. Within a 12-month period, physical restraints were used at least 532 times, and mechanical restraints (handcuffs or shackles) were used 134 times.
I want to start by saying those charged with rehabilitating and treating this vulnerable population face difficulties and challenges. Their work is not easy. But are cycles of punishment that go nowhere and only harm our youth any better?
I say no, and I offer an alternative: operating from an understanding of the impact of trauma.
I lead Clifford Beers Clinic, a New Haven children’s mental health clinic where we see over 2,600 children and families each year. We deliver care that is compassionate, culturally-sensitive and trauma-informed, and in doing so we achieve success. We help these kids heal in the wake of some terrible, terrible things.
We know that childhood trauma can break the child’s ability to attach and trust others. Trauma and stress can interfere with brain development particularly in areas that help executive functioning (being able to organize thoughts and make good decisions). Chronic stress and exposure to adversity can cause great emotional deregulation.
And yet many of the youth in these facilities have been exposed to significant trauma. They have been repeatedly used and manipulated by adults in authority—some abused by the adults they loved the most. This is precisely the type of trauma that can result in children who are difficult to manage and otherwise troubled.
Today we know so much more about the impact of trauma. We know trauma can beget trauma. We know that punishing milieus are born from frustration and abuses of hierarchy. We also know that it takes powerful, trauma-informed leadership to change organizations to be trauma-sensitive and to create sanctuaries that become areas of safety where healing and learning can occur within a social environment.
Our clinic is named after Clifford W. Beers, a New Haven native who was sent to an insane asylum after his failed suicide attempt. As an inmate he was treated with abject cruelty: painful restraints, force feeding, and ridicule at the whim of his keepers. When he was released he wrote a book that inspired others to work with him to reform mental health care.
Essentially, Beers founded outpatient therapy, and his work remains the cornerstone of mandates that require respectful and humane treatment of the mentally ill.
Today, Connecticut can once again be at the forefront of reform; Connecticut can transform jails into treatment facilities and offer trauma-informed mental health treatment 24 hours a day, seven days a week for youth who need it most.
Beers made the following clarion call: A pen rather than a lance has been my weapon of offence and defense; with its point I should prick the civic conscience and bring into a neglected field men and women who should act as champions for those afflicted thousands least able to fight for themselves.
We must all be champions for those least able to fight for themselves, for the youth in these facilities. Connecticut can lead the nation in transforming juvenile justice centers into safe environments where healing and personal responsibility can be nurtured.
This is right. This is just.
Alice Forrester, PhD, is the executive director of the Clifford Beers Clinic.