I was working with a young man on probation who was a trauma survivor. He was being drug tested and unfortunately the environment triggered a traumatic response. He came running out of the bathroom and I followed him as he wandered around in a highly agitated state. I was able to talk with him and was working on helping him reconnect with his environment.
Just as he was starting to calm down, a police officer approached us. He was very direct and demanded to know what was going on. I believe he was concerned this young man was being combative; however, the young man began to escalate again. His fists clenched, his breathing became shallow, and he became highly agitated. The officer quickly approached us and I kept reassuring him we were fine and I was safe.
After a couple of minutes the officer appeared to accept my reassurances and left. It took some time and gentle guidance before the young man was able to de-escalate and remain calm. It was apparent this officer, while concerned for my safety, was unaware this young man was in a trauma response and how his approach to us was actually escalating the situation.
This story highlights the importance of law enforcement being able to identify a youth showing signs of trauma-related behaviors. Often kids experiencing traumatic responses are aggressive; defiant; distrusting of adults and authority figures; experience difficulty processing information; are impulsive; have a heightened fight, flight or freeze response; and are hypersensitive to noise. But to a professional without proper training these behaviors can also be interpreted as combative rather than a traumatic response.
The interventions for these two situations are very different. Identifying the differences between a youth who is being combative and a youth who is reacting to a situation that has triggered a stress reaction can have life-altering consequences. Rather than reacting to the combative behavior with more aggression, an officer can help a youth remain calm and create an environment of safety. This could assist in de-escalating their hypervigilance and cease aggressive behavior patterns. This approach can result in fewer charges for youth, a reduction in the use of secure detention, youth not being retraumatized and fewer or no injuries to either the youth or the responding officers.
Or an officer can respond aggressively and trigger a stronger traumatic response, which will likely only push the youth further into the juvenile justice system. It is imperative for officers to receive training on understanding the impact of trauma on brain development, behavioral warning signs and how to approach and assess a situation of a youth acting out.
However, incorporating trauma-informed response into basic training requires a broader culture change. It has been my experience working in this field for 20-plus years that there is a resistance to addressing these issues differently.
Often, trauma isn’t understood as a factor outside the youth’s control but as an “excuse” for a youth to act out. Being able to challenge and eventually change this thinking will be a long-term process rather than an event.
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to raise awareness of trauma with our police partners. We have a local residential treatment center for kids with histories of severe trauma. Several of these kids were involved in the juvenile justice system. I was consistently getting phone calls from officers requesting I do something about the residents’ behaviors, i.e. chronic running, aggression and defiance.
I was asked if I could work with the facility to put a 12-foot fence around the property and reduce the calls they received. It was apparent to me the officers lacked understanding of this population and their unique challenges. They were unaware the placement was offering treatment for these kids and how just their presence could trigger a traumatic response. I asked myself if and how this perception could change.
I arranged a meeting among myself, the police department and the placement staff. It was a tense first meeting but we agreed to continue to meet. As we met, the police were able to develop an understanding of this population. They were unaware of the issues the residents experienced or why they required such a high level of care.
The police also learned that a part of many of the residents’ history were traumatic experiences involving police, such as incidents of police responding to domestic violence calls in the kids’ home and arresting one of the adults. Once the police developed an understanding of the population, things started to change.
The police department and the residents started having regular activities together. They played basketball, enjoyed barbecues and participated in holiday activities together. The police even resurfaced the placements’ baseball field.
As a regular routine, officers were required to tour the facility at least once. I know of at least one officer who, as a part of his regular patrol, would stop in and talk with the kids. Discussions during roll call were also occurring. The officers’ perception and understanding of these youth changed as did the youths’ perception of the police.
I consider our efforts to be successful, having a positive impact on the residents, placement staff, the police department and the community. However, it’s unlikely these changes would have occurred if the onus was placed on law enforcement to get more training.
As juvenile justice professionals, we know it is important to stop criminalizing a youth’s traumatic response to a situation that triggers their traumatic stress. Making trauma-informed training available and mandatory for law enforcement officers is an important strategy to improving outcomes for traumatized youth as well as improving community safety.
An equally important strategy is for juvenile justice professionals who understand trauma to model effective approaches and invite our law enforcement partners into conversations and opportunities to view these youth through a trauma-informed lens. Through training and partnership, we can begin to turn the tide and create a juvenile justice culture that protects our most vulnerable youth while simultaneously protecting the community.
Kathleen McNamara, MSW, LSW, is a senior probation officer and community placement manager for the Department of Probation and Court Services of the 18th Judicial Court (DuPage County, Illinois). She serves as vice chair of Illinois’ Children’s Justice Task Force and as a member of the Probation System Review Practice Network for the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice.