Juvenile Detention Centers: The Importance of Assessing Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma has a profound impact on victims’ lives as they grow up and can continue well into adulthood. Children are vulnerable; trauma at a young age can influence their future behavior and cause them to get into trouble with the law. If this behavior lands adolescents in the criminal justice system it is important they receive help. Addressing their traumas and providing these individuals with treatment can give them the tools needed to change their lifestyle and rejoin society. Many victims of childhood trauma exhibit criminal behavior because they have not coped with what happened to them. They are not necessarily bad people, they are just angry and out of control. Assessing adolescents in juvenile detention centers for childhood trauma and offering help to those who are affected by trauma can prevent a lifetime of crime, incarceration and resentment. A center’s failure to asses and treat incoming adolescents can inflict further trauma and lead to serious consequences. The environment and treatment in juvenile detention centers can put victims of childhood trauma in distress; without treatment adolescents are more likely to become repeat offenders and/or commit suicide.

Victims of childhood trauma have experienced pain at their most vulnerable state; they were too young to defend themselves and adults nearby failed to protect them. Children are more sensitive to trauma because of their size, age, and dependence (Rousseau, 2019). After a traumatic event it is likely a child will experience traumatic stress. Traumatic stress influences a child’s behavior and can cause fear, anger, withdrawal, trouble concentrating, digestive problems, and nightmares (Rousseau, 2019). The most common symptoms displayed by children experiencing traumatic stress are the symptoms exhibited by children with behavior disorders (Rousseau, 2019). If traumatic stress is not treated, these behaviors are adopted and severity of misconduct escalates as time passes. This explains how adolescents with childhood trauma find themselves in trouble with the law. There has recently been a focus on delinquent behavior that stems from unresolved post traumatic symptoms (Rousseau, 2019). Some juvenile detention centers require the assessment of incoming adolescents to determine if they suffer from PTSD or need mental health services (Rousseau, 2019). Knowing if a delinquent behavior was a result of post-traumatic stress is important because it points to which adolescents in the center need treatment, are at risk for suicide and have high probabilities of rehabilitation.

It is important for juvenile detention centers to know who to offer treatments to and which individuals need to be closely monitored. While it would be ideal to offer these services to all teens in the criminal justice system, it is not financially realistic. Teens in juvenile detention centers are more likely to commit suicide and it is imperative that they receive treatment and monitoring. Chapman states that, incarcerated youths with traumatic stress history or PTSD could be exposed to conditions that exacerbate the risk of suicide, like the use of restraints for discipline, and locked cells (Chapman, 2008). Data is needed to guide juvenile detention programs in early identification of youths who are at risk for suicide (Chapman, 2008). To avoid wasting resources, these services should only be offered to individuals experiencing trauma. There are two ways to determine who needs treatment, Screening and Assessment (Rousseau, 2019). It is more effective and important for juvenile detention centers to use assessment. A screening is a brief evaluation for safety; they are of short duration and can be applied universally (Rousseau, 2019). Assessment evaluates people in depth; it is a clinical evaluation designed to establish whether a youth meets criteria for a diagnosis or needs mental health services (Rousseau, 2019). Assessing incoming adolescents and providing treatment for those experiencing post-traumatic stress can save and change lives. Treatment can prevent adolescents from becoming repeat offenders, teach them how to forgive and give them the tools needed for coping and self-regulating. A juvenile detention center that exemplifies the policies and programs described is, Woodfield Detention Cottage in Westchester, New York.

Woodfield Detention Cottage uses assessments to test for childhood trauma and determine whether or not individuals need assistance from Rising Ground. Rising Ground is an organization that offers many different programs throughout New York City; the program that works with Woodfield Detention Cottage is called Justice for Youth & Families. It focuses on giving youth who have suffered childhood trauma a second chance. They believe that these individuals performed crimes due to unresolved problems associated with trauma, not because they are bad people. Their website states, “Life can throw up roadblocks that seem insurmountable. Abuse, neglect, or serious trauma may lead young people to make poor choices and to involvement with the juvenile justice system. Both our residential and our community-based juvenile justice programs give them a chance to rise above the obstacles they face so they can change the trajectory of their lives” (risingground.org). This program aims to teach individuals how to cope with their trauma correctly, examine their choices and prepare them for re-entry.

Woodfield Detention Cottage tries to adjust behavior but takes into consideration the fact that some children were stuck in toxic situations that deeply impacted their behavior. As pointed on in the lecture notes, the development of the prefrontal cortex is sensitive to psychological environments, and children who have experienced severe trauma may have developmental issues with their prefrontal cortex. This can lead to hypersensitivity towards stress and make it more difficult to self-regulate emotion (Rousseau, 2019).  In an article written about the Woodfield Detention Cottage and other similar Juvenile Detention Centers, a psychiatrist working in these facilities stated that, “It was not unusual to see a 200-pound, 16-year-old who was deeply enraged because he was deprived of parental care but who had only ‘the emotional maturity of the terrible 2’s’” (Brenner, 1997). The Rising Ground organization also takes into consideration how damaging family issues can be for children. Van der Kolk explains that sometimes parents are so preoccupied with their own traumas, that they are too emotionally unstable and unreliable to offer comfort and protection to their children (Van der Kolk, 2015). Rising Ground tries to help children understand their relatives and rebuild relationships. This is clearly indicated in their mission statement, “Many of the youth we support come from families and communities that face challenges with poverty, violence and lack of educational resources. But the cycle doesn’t have to continue. Youth in our juvenile justice programs discover their inner strengths and demonstrate tremendous resilience” (risingground.org). Woodfield Detention Cottage’s procedures have been working for many years. Rocco Pozzi, Probation Commissioner for Westchester County even stated that, ”Most kids in trouble with the law never graduate upstairs. Most of them, we won’t see again. A lot of them do respond to rehabilitation efforts, and they don’t go on to become adult criminals” (Brenner). This shows how effective an assessment and treatment policy is for adolescents with childhood trauma. It is important that this policy be incorporated into as many juvenile detention centers as possible, it has a positive effect on adolescents and changes their life.


Brenner, E. (1997, August 03). Trying to Avoid Giving Up on Young Offenders. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1997/08/03/nyregion/trying-to-avoid-giving-up-on-young-offenders.html

Chapman, J. F., & Ford, J. D. (2008). Relationships between suicide risk, traumatic experiences, and substance use among juvenile detainees. Archives of Suicide Research, 12(1), 50-61. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13811110701800830

Our Juvenile Justice programs mean better solutions for youth. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.risingground.org/program/juvenile-justice-programs/

Rousseau, D. (2019). Lesson 2.1: The Minds of Children [PDF]. Retrieved from Boston University MET CJ 720 Online Campus Dashboard.

Van Der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score. New York: Penguin.

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