Throughout my time at Columbia School of Social Work, I have had numerous opportunities to interact and collaborate with young people directly impacted by the criminal legal system. Last year, in my field placement with Juvenile Rights Practice at The Legal Aid Society (LAS) in the Bronx, I worked primarily on delinquency cases. As a social work intern at LAS, I met with those young people who had open cases once a week to discuss their experiences and to identify needs. The majority of those young people had firsthand knowledge, often in the form of lived experience, of juvenile detention facilities. After graduation, I hope to continue working with systems involved youth. While I fully acknowledge that I will never have the same level of expertise as the young people with whom I worked, I applied what I learned from them through their shared testimonies and honest discussions with me to the following critical analysis of Julian Ford and Josephine Hawke’s 2012 article “Trauma Affect Regulation Psychoeducation Group and Milieu Intervention Outcomes in Juvenile Detention Facilities”
In this article, Ford and Hawke describe outcomes from experimental therapeutic and educational programs implemented at three juvenile detention facilities across Connecticut. ‘Trauma Affect Regulation: Guide for Education and Therapy’, or ‘TARGET’, is intended to address behavioral actions that are associated with trauma and trauma response and to test the impact of these behaviors among youth in juvenile detention facilities. The results of the study suggest that the program did produce positive outcomes. However, from a trauma-informed perspective, there are many shortcomings of both the study and the program. The study failed to adequately explore the root causes and impacts of community trauma and the systemic inequities (namely the multifaceted and entrenched effects of racism) that shape these outcomes. Moreover, the study methods raised concerns about equity and inclusion, such as the focus on gender-specific treatment and reliance on written screening tools.
The authors note that youth in detention centers have been exposed to trauma at higher rates than their peers that have not been to juvenile detention facilities. For example, almost all the young people who participated in the study reported witnessing community violence prior to entering a detention facility. While the authors note that these higher rates of trauma exposure may be linked to intergenerational cycles of abuse, addiction, and violence, they fail to further interrogate the causes of these cycles. As a future clinical social worker, I believe it is important to understand the ways in which systemic inequities shape individuals’ behaviors and life trajectories. Some relevant determinants of community violence include racism, historical trauma, poverty, and lack of access to resources associated with lower crime rates (e.g. well-funded schools, health care, and quality mental health services) (American Public Health Association, 2019) . In clinical social work it is important to use a structural lens to interpret individual choices and behaviors, ultimately allowing for a deeper understanding of the client.
The absence of critical race theory in the article was especially striking given the composition of the study sample. The share of participants who identified as either Black (43%) or Hispanic (32%) was disproportionate to the racial and ethnic makeup of both Connecticut and the United States. Ford and Hawke explain that because of the racial and ethnic distribution of the three detention facilities, they could not be used as a matching variable in their study. Though their study was limited in its ability to observe differences in outcomes by race and ethnicity, the authors missed an opportunity to address why young people of color are overrepresented in these facilities and in the criminal legal system in general. Due to factors like historical trauma and potential racial biases of staff, I do not think it is accurate to assume that a young Black person will have the same experience with TARGET as a young white person.
In addition to the study’s lack of examination of race and ethnicity, I found aspects of the procedures, measures, and intervention model to be inaccessible and exclusive. Ford and Hawke utilized the Traumatic Events and Screening Inventory/ Self-Report to assess participants’s history of psychological trauma. According to the article, this tool consists of “25 behaviorally specific questions [written] at a fifth-grade reading level”. As I read this article, I thought of the numerous young people I’ve worked with in the last year who would not have been able to complete this assessment for various reasons including cognitive impairments and lack of formal education. oral version of the assessment was available to study participants, and whether necessity to complete the screening had an impact on the participants who were selected or the data that was used. Not including alternative methods of data collection may have both limited the strength of the data and alienated participants who struggled to complete the standard assessment. As someone who lives with a learning disability, and someone who has worked with a diverse population of young people, I know that tools and assessments are not ‘one size fits all’. In my future work, I would like to collaborate with participants to find a way of information gathering and sharing that is accessible and comfortable for all participants.
Issues of accessibility and inclusion were also present in the study’s approach to gender. The article describes TARGET as “a manualized, gender-specific treatment and prevention intervention…” However, nowhere in the article do they discuss or even mention the existence of young people who do not conform to the gender binary. Young people of varying gender and sexual identities exist everywhere, including in juvenile detention facilities. In fact, LGBTQIA+ youth are disproportionately overrepresented in the criminal legal system (Hunt, 2021). I find it disconcerting that a study on trauma did not explicitly name the impact of sexual and gender identity (particularly as they intersect with race) on participant outcomes. In my approach to social work, I will apply Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality (1991) in order to acknowledge and honor the complexity of my clients’ identities. I also plan to use inclusive language and avoid making assumptions about individuals’ abilities or comfort levels.
Though I disagreed with aspects of the study, I found some elements of the research to be important and practical. Given that stable housing, safety from further trauma exposure, long term sessions with a trained mental health specialist, and a strong emotional support network are not accessible for young people in detention centers, I appreciate the researchers’ motivation to provide young people with tools to better manage their emotions. I also appreciate how the memory work in TARGET “focuses on current or past experiences that have meaning or importance to the youth, not specifically or exclusively on traumatic stressors”. Young people involved in the criminal legal system have undoubtedly experienced trauma, but it is important to encourage and allow young people to reflect on things that make them happy and bring them joy. Trauma work, while an important step toward client well-being, can be incredibly difficult and draining. As humans, we should have as much space to share our joy and love as we have to share our trauma and pain. I intend to carry this principle into my work as a social worker. Finally, I like that the detention centers cited in the study implemented TARGET techniques in times where participants were not experiencing heightened levels of stress so that participants could “increase their ability to anticipate and respond to stressful events in a focused manner”. I believe it is important to incorporate these kinds of coping skills into daily life so that they are readily available to youth in times of crisis.
My work with young people involved in the criminal legal system over the past year has changed the way I think and how I plan to practice as a social worker. The Ford and Hawke article provided useful information that will help guide my work as I grow as a professional. While this research offers valuable knowledge to employ in my professional practice, I believe that the most important insight ultimately comes from those with lived experience. Going forward, I will continue to pair teachings from my critical reading of social work literature with the lived experiences of the communities I intend to serve.
About the Author
Catherine (she/her) is a clinical intern at Midtown Community Court. She is in her final semester at Columbia University where she is pursuing her Master’s in Social Work with a concentration in Advanced Clinical Practice. Catherine previously interned at The Legal Aid Society and hopes to continue working with folks impacted by the criminal legal system. Catherine is planning on getting her clinical licenses in her home state of Massachusetts while her partner finishes his Orthopedic Surgery residency.
“This piece was originally written as an assignment for my Advanced Clinical Practice course with Professor Lili Glauber. The assignment asked us to select an article and discuss its relevance to clinical social work practice. Alanna Fox helped me edit and restructure my work for The Amsterdam. My work with young people through my field placements influenced my decision to select this article. While I fully acknowledge that I will never have the same level of expertise as the young people with whom I work,I applied what I learned from them through their shared testimonies and honest discussions with me to my critical analysis of the reading.”
American Public Health Association. (2019). Violence is a public health issue: Public Health is essential to understanding and treating violence in the U.S. Retrieved October 2021, from https://apha.org/policies-and-advocacy/public-health-policy-statements/policy-database/2019/01/28/violence-is-a-public-health-issue
Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241. https://doi.org/10.2307/1229039
Ford, J. D., & Hawke, J. (2012). Trauma Affect Regulation Psychoeducation Group and Milieu Intervention Outcomes in Juvenile Detention Facilities. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 21(4), 365–384.
The Unfair Criminalization of Gay and Transgender Youth. (2012, June 29). Center for AmericanProgress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/lgbtq-rights/reports/2012/06/29/11730/the-unfair-criminalization-of-gay-and-transgender-youth/