Most Justice-Involved Youth Affected by Traumatic Childhood Experiences

As many as 9 in 10 youth in justice system have experienced a traumatic event, yet few such youth are identified as traumatized, and fewer receive appropriate treatment or placement

Washington DC – The Justice Policy Institute (JPI) released a brief today examining the relationship between childhood trauma and justice system involvement for youth. According to Healing Invisible Wounds: Why Investing in Trauma-Informed Care for Children Makes Sense, of the more than 93,000 children that are currently incarcerated in the United States, between 75 and 93 percent have experienced at least one traumatic experience, including sexual abuse, war, community violence, neglect and maltreatment. Research points to long term effects of childhood trauma, including emotional problems and negative impacts on youth brain development. The brief notes that while holding youth who engage in delinquent behavior accountable is important, it is critical that trauma exposure be considered in placement decisions, as youth who receive treatment in the community have better outcomes than those placed in correctional facilities.

“Incarcerated youth already face significant challenges, but youth who have experienced trauma are even more acutely affected,” said author Erica Adams, M.D. “Addressing a child’s trauma through the public health system before that child becomes involved with the justice system is critical to promoting the well-being of the child, the family and ultimately, the community.”

Researchers found that youth who suffer trauma are more likely to develop life-long psychiatric conditions, including personality disorders, conduct disorder, ADHD, depression, anxiety, substance abuse disorders and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Traumatized youth can experience developmental delays, decreased cognitive abilities, learning disabilities and even lower IQ levels, with school problems including school dropout and expulsion rates at nearly three times that of their peers who had not experienced trauma.

“We simply cannot afford to ignore the evidence and prevalence of the long-term effects of untreated childhood trauma,” says Tracy Velázquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. “If we are to have strong healthy communities, then we must start with these children whose unseen and untreated wounds hinder their ability to become healthy, productive adults.”

Velázquez will be sharing the findings of Healing Invisiblen Wounds next week at the National Juvenile Justice Network’s eighth annual forum in New Orleans, Louisiana.

As detailed in the research brief, currently the justice system does not meet the needs of traumatized youth and may increase trauma through its use of incarceration. Thousands of youth are incarcerated each year, and few are screened for trauma-related symptoms or provided trauma-informed care. In one study, 84 percent of agencies reported either no or extremely limited information provided on the youth’s trauma history, and 33 percent of the agencies reported not training staff to assess for trauma at all. Although 60 percent of states surveyed report using universal or selective trauma screenings, the scope is often limited, and fewer than 20 percent of states provide evidence-based or otherwise standardized assessment tools. According to Adams, this may be because trauma often resembles delinquent behavior.

“Although it may be difficult initially to identify the role trauma has played, the most effective and appropriate response to traumatized youth, in or out of the system, is one of treatment and support,” says Adams. “Yet, once these children enter the justice system, quality, evidence-based, trauma-informed treatments and interventions are currently almost non-existent.”

Experts advocating for system reforms that address the unique needs of trauma-affected children say that long-term strategies to treat rather than incarcerate are needed to curb the cycle of justice system involvement at its source, and that these programs should be supported at federal and state levels.

Based largely on the collaborative work of researchers, clinicians and members of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), JPI makes the following recommendations for child-serving systems, law enforcement, judges and entire judicial systems to better recognize and treat trauma in children. The following policies outline steps towards a trauma-informed system.

  • Improve reporting of and screening for trauma exposure. The justice system and law enforcement must emphasize assisting people who experience trauma, as well as supporting people who do report incidents of violence, abuse or neglect, regardless of willingness to prosecute.
  • Improve assessment of trauma exposure. There should be an investigation into the child’s current environment beyond basic safety assurance, which is important for both diagnosis and treatment of trauma-related dysfunction by a professional trained in both general psychiatric assessment and child traumatic stress assessment.
  • Provide targeted prevention and early intervention programs. Counseling and other early interventions should be provided for all people who have experienced trauma and should be instituted relatively soon following the initial incident.
  • Ensure children who have experienced trauma receive services and treatment. Youth and families that have experienced trauma should be referred to practitioners or agencies that provide evidence-based, trauma-informed treatment. Youth should not have to enter the justice system to access these and other mental health services.
  • Avoid further trauma within the justice system. At all stages of processing, care should be taken to not further traumatize youth entering child-serving systems, most of whom have previous traumatic experiences or concurrent mental illness.
  • Consider trauma exposure when deciding sentencing and placement. Judges should receive training on the impact of trauma on youth and appropriate, evidence-based responses. It is critical for judges to understand the role of trauma exposure on youth, particularly if the traumatic exposure may have contributed to an offense.
  • Invest in prevention and trauma-informed programs. Although many states are currently grappling with record budget deficits, cutting prevention and trauma-informed programs may result in more costs down the road. The direct and indirect costs associated with child maltreatment make it among the most costly public health problems in the United States.

To read the full brief click the link Healing Invisible Wounds: Why Investing in Trauma-Informed Care for Children Makes Sense. For additional information, please contact LaWanda Johnson at (202) 558-7974 x308 or [email protected]. For more on JPI’s research, please visit our website at

The Justice Policy Institute (JPI) is a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to reducing society’s use of incarceration and promoting just and effective social policies.