By Tony Jamieson*

Young people in youth detention centres

In Queensland there are over 250 beds between the existing two youth detention centres in Brisbane and Townsville, with a third centre currently being constructed that will bring the total beds to just under 300.

Young people who spend time at these youth detention centres, do so because they have been found guilty of committing offences, or are remanded until their offences have been heard by a court. As such there are many people who are victims of their offending behaviour. Yet what is not widely discussed is that many of those young people are victims themselves, because they have been subjected to a range of traumatic events.

Dr Stephen Stathis (Stathis et al., 2008), psychiatrist and Medical Director with Queensland Health, describes these young people as being among the most disadvantaged youth in Queensland. Stathis et al., (2008) say that they are vulnerable for several reasons, including “… chronic social, family or educational adversity, and a history of traumatic life events”, (p.1).

Dr Stathis and his colleagues conducted an initial study in 2008 with 164 young people at the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre, which showed high levels of mental health challenges in that environment, that were indicative of trauma (75% of boys and 90% of girls). That study used the MAYSI-2 (Massachusetts Youth Screening Instrument – Version 2; McCoy et al., 2016), which is a screening tool to determine mental health concerns for young people. Concerned that the MAYSI-2 may not be a valid tool for Indigenous youth, they conducted a follow up study in 2012 with 47 Indigenous young people and used the Westerman Aboriginal Symptom Checklist – Youth Version (Westerman, 2003). Even higher levels of trauma were found in the follow-up study (94% of boys and 100% of girls).  

What is trauma?

There are many definitions of trauma and it should be noted that trauma as a broad concept refers to many things, including natural disasters, accidents and brain injury. The aspects of trauma referred to here are of an interpersonal nature.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA, 2014) in the USA refer to trauma using the Three E’s definition: Events, Experience and Effects.

The first E refers to events and conditions where there is actual, perceived or threatened harm (i.e. it does not have to be actual harm), which may occur only once or, or it may occur repeatedly; predictably the more that harm occurs, the worse is the trauma. Trauma events include: verbal, physical and sexual abuse, emotional and physical neglect, domestic violence, parental separation or divorce, parental mental illness, parental incarceration, parental drug and/or alcohol use.

The experience of those events means that each individual’s reaction to trauma is unique, and the course and duration of that experience cannot be predicted. That is, it should not be expected that someone gets over trauma in a particular way or time. There are also the undesirable Effects of that trauma, which can be short or long-term, immediate or delayed. Those effects include: being more reactive and volatile, having sleep and self-regulation difficulties, having few healthy relationships, a reduced attention span, rigid thinking and behaviour patterns, reduced social skills, poor self-identity, depression, anxiety and suicidality.

What is the link between trauma and offending?

Miller (2014) identified that there are a number of common environmental and neuropsychological factors that are shared by young people with trauma histories, who go onto become long-term offenders. The environmental factors include: family members with histories of offending behaviour, domestic violence, and child abuse. The neuropsychological factors include: “low verbal IQ, poor academic and vocational achievement, hyperactivity, impulsivity, substance abuse, and neuropsychological anomalies” (Miller, 2014, p. 123).

Olafson et al., (2016) refer to the impact of such trauma as a breach of the social contract with the child, which leads to a strongly negative influence on the young person’s engagement with societal rules, family and work. Lujan and Fanniff (2018) discuss the breach of the social contract in terms of there being a link between the various impacts of trauma on young people and their perceptions of fairness, which in turn results in offending behaviour. That is, young people believe that the world has treated them unfairly and they respond in kind.

Trauma and youth detention centres

The youth detention centre environment has the potential to reinforce trauma. Pickens (2016) says that when a traumatised young people enters a youth detention centre for the first time s/he often experiences a strong sense of hyper-vigilance. This is due to their usual sense of danger being further heightened by finding him/herself in an unfamiliar environment, coupled with their ongoing struggles to minimise any trauma reminders. Both factors can create an agitated atmosphere for the young person, which may result in him/her feeling that there is danger in the environment, and responding with either physical aggression, or conversely with physical and emotional distance from others, in an attempt to feel safe. Should the environment actually be unsafe, as is sometimes the case, the young person’s concerns will be validated (Barron & Tracey, 2018; Fasulo et al., 2015; Pickens, 2016).

Further complicating this picture is that some young people enter youth detention with a long-term exposure to violence, which has seen them become psychologically numb when violence occurs. This response has the unfortunate outcome of increasing their likelihood of behaving violently themselves, while shielding them from any emotional response, such as remorse (Abram et al., 2004; Ford & Blaustein, 2013; Quinn et al., 2017).

How might a trauma-informed approach help?

Given all of the above information, Rapp (2016) argues that there is cause to be at least looking at approaches informed by trauma in the youth detention space. Advocates of trauma-informed approaches (e.g., Pickens, 2016; Joiner & Buttell, 2018; Walsh et al, 2018) argue that young people who are trauma victims are not to blame for that victimisation, but they bear the burden of the consequences of the resulting trauma.

Being trauma-informed means that organisations (including youth detention centres) that work with traumatised young people need to:

  • Understand what trauma means and the manner of presentation, not just in their clients, but in other stakeholders such as staff and families (SAMHSA), 2014).
  • Understand there is an ongoing risk that many of the current Youth Justice practices will trigger them. For instance, physical or mechanical restraints used in youth detention centres can be trigger a reaction of panic and flashbacks (Pickens, 2016; Rapp, 2016).
  • Ask a different question of young people upon entering the youth justice system. Currently young people are asked, ‘what’s wrong with you?’, or ‘what have you done?’. However a trauma-informed system asks, ‘what happened to you?’, which usually sets up a different relationship with the young person (Flocks et al., 2017; Yoder et al., 2019).
  • Allow the young person to manage their trauma symptoms in ways that enable him/her to develop resilience and improved mental health (Kerns et al., 2016; Flocks et al., 2017).
  • Be highly conscious of focusing on both genders, as there are significant impacts on girls in youth detention centres that are different to boys and often not recognised (Elwyn et al., 2015; Flocks et al., 2017; De Hart & Moran, 2015).
  • Have a focus on the needs of Indigenous young people, given their over-representation in the Youth Justice system (Atkinson et al., 2014).

It is fair to say that youth detention centres already attempt to provide trauma-related responses e.g., through the provision of mental health and case work supports, but this does not occur in a coordinated or comprehensive fashion.

Trauma-Informed Care

Trauma-Informed Care (TIC) offers a potential response for that lack of coordination and comprehensiveness. TIC is a strengths-based framework that is responsive to the impact of trauma, emphasising physical, psychological, emotional and cultural safety and creates opportunities for young people to rebuild a sense of empowerment and choice. It is grounded in and directed by a thorough understanding of the neurological, biological, psychological and social effects of trauma and interpersonal violence and the prevalence of these experiences (Bateman et al., 2013; Hopper et al., 2009).

TIC has been discussed as being an approach that reconceives the way that human services are delivered, whereby all aspects of service delivery are organised around the recognition, acknowledgement and prevalence of trauma (Kezelman & Stavropoulos, 2012). Advocates say that the overall reason for a TIC approach is that it has the potential to positively change the entire environment in the Youth Justice system, providing young people and staff with skills for predicting and managing traumatic stress and secondary trauma impacts. A TIC focus has the potential to allow the system to adopt an approach that is safer and more therapeutic than other options that have a more punitive intent, such as isolation rooms in youth detention (Elwyn et al., 2015; Roy et al., 2019).

Publicly available documents released by each Australian jurisdiction (including Queensland) to the Australasian Youth Justice Administrators make claims that all jurisdictions are delivering trauma-informed responses in one form or another (AYJA, 2019). However to what extent these responses can be considered as a system-wide response as outlined by experts such as Kezelman and Stavropoulos (2012), is ambiguous.

There is little research on TIC in Youth Justice in Australia, so this researcher will be investigating whether it is feasible to implement TIC in a youth detention centre and what a good practice model might look like. Further posts will follow, as the research takes shape.

*Tony Jamieson is a PhD candidate and sessional tutor in the Griffith Criminology Institute


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