Tag Archive for youth

Panel Believes Brain Development Should Seriously Influence the Treatment of Juvenile Offenders


brains! (Photo credit: cloois)

At the recent Models for Change National Working Conference, experts declared that adolescent brain development should play a greater role in determining how youths are treated in the juvenile justice system.

Adolescent brain development has played an increasingly important role in juvenile justice in recent years. For example, the Supreme Court has noted in key decisions that juveniles’ brains are not fully developed, so youths are more susceptible than adults to peer pressure, more impulsive, more likely to take risks, less likely to consider long-term consequences and more amenable to rehabilitation.

Neuroscientist B.J. Casey, director of the Sackler Institute at the Weill Cornell Medical College, said:

Brain maturation doesn’t occur in isolation, but is all about adapting to the environment and developing based on the experiences that the individual has. And if you’re going to reach full adulthood, adolescence is a transient period where the child is learning how to be more reliant on himself in making judgments and decisions as opposed to parents. And without the opportunities and reinforcement of appropriate behaviors, they’ll really have difficulty in transitioning into that role.

Some notions of the U.S. juvenile justice system date to its origins in the 1890s, and are likely inappropriate today.

Panelist Richard Bonnie, director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, spoke of a 2012 National Research Council report he co-authored which concluded that the treatment of juvenile offenders should reflect knowledge about adolescent brain development. He said:

In the Supreme Court’s 1967 Gault decision, one of the criticisms of the juvenile justice system was that we had not delivered on the rehabilitative ideals and the promise of prevention and instead had fallen into punishment in fact, if not in law. The NRC report embraces fairness, so accountability is not just some alternative word to use for smuggling punishment into the juvenile justice system. Instead it is a way of understanding and holding a young person accountable for their behavior, to teach responsibility and promote successful law-abiding behavior as adults.

Adolescents are hyper-sensitive to whether they’re being treated fairly, so everyone in the juvenile justice system has to make a point of doing so.

Fairborz Pakseresht, who took over last year as director of the Oregon Youth Authority, said the juvenile justice system must adapt to advances in knowledge about adolescent development and base its policies on research and data. He stated:

We are emerging from a system that is based in old thinking. In the current mold, we think that you commit X crime and you get X number of years or months. And the question becomes whether that is the best way of dealing with our youth. The biggest challenge is changing our whole mindset and changing the function within our system and facilities.

Youths in the juvenile justice system can also be seen as victims. What we need to do in our system is not victimize them and further traumatize them. They’re going to become our neighbors.

Pakseresht said statistics showed that of the youths moved from the juvenile system to the adult Division of Corrections in Oregon, because of behavior, recidivism increased by 136 percent among them. When he received a list of six youths who facility personnel believed should be transferred to the DOC, Pakseresht denied the requests.

“The governor did not hire me to send them to DOC,” he said. “I am here to create better outcomes for communities, so we have to do the best for them.”


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If Congress Passes these Four Bills It Could Lower LGBT Homelessness

Although lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth comprise 5 percent to 7 percent

English: Rainbow flag flapping in the wind wit...

English: Rainbow flag flapping in the wind with blue skies and the sun. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

of overall young people, an overwhelming 40 percent of all homeless youth are LGBT. Family rejection is the leading cause of homelessness among them, but an additional 26 percent leave home because they feel they have nowhere else to turn, because their schools and peers are hostile to LGBT students. Moreover, discrimination and harassment in schools exacerbate family conflicts over a youth’s sexual orientation or gender identity and increase the chance of homelessness.

Senators Tom Harkin and Al Franken are now pushing an education bill that includes a number of reforms to the Student Nondiscrimination Act (SNDA), which are designed to reduce incidents of bullying in schools. Modeled after Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, SNDA would establish the right to an education free of harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in primary and secondary schools. If signed into law, the bill would allow students who have been bullied to seek legal recourse, and it would authorize the federal government to withhold federal funds from schools that condone the bullying of LGBT students. It would be an important first step to ending LGBT youth homelessness.

Earlier this year, Senators Casey and Kirk introduced a bill in the Senate (which Rep. Linda Sanchez introduced in the House), the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA), which would require schools receiving federal funding to implement policies to ban bullying, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It would also require states to report bullying and harassment data to the U.S. Department of Education.

Importantly, SSIA also explicitly states that schools cannot allow the threat of bullying and harassment to deter students from participating in school programs and extracurricular activities. In-school and afterschool programs have the potential to prevent homelessness for LGBT youth by providing a positive environment and deterring them from turning to substance abuse and engaging in other risky behaviors to cope with peer rejection. Discouraging youth from engaging in these behaviors alone reduces the risk that these youth will become homeless at some point in their lives.

Research from the Family Acceptance Project found that:

Abstaining from risky behaviors and performing well at school can reduce family conflict at home, which is the primary reason that LGBT youth experience homelessness. Among LGBT students, 30 percent report missing at least one day of school in the past month because of safety concerns, and students who are bullied frequently report lower grade-point averages..

“Researchers have also found that LGBT youth are more likely than other youth to use tobacco products than their heterosexual peers, largely to cope with rejection from their families and peers. By adopting and enforcing antibullying policies, schools can help alleviate behaviors associated with family conflict and rejection such as substance abuse and poor academic performance, thereby decreasing the odds of a child becoming homeless.

Another way Congress could help LGBT homeless youth is by directing existing homeless-youth programs to specifically target them. The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) awards grants to public and private organizations assisting homeless youth. It is reauthorized every five years, yet makes no mention of LGBT youth, despite their disproportionate representation among the homeless-youth population. This year, Congress should include them in RHYA.

Congress should adopt a general statement of nondiscrimination for the bill that includes sexual orientation and gender identity. This would prohibit grant recipients using RHYA funds from discriminating against gay and transgender youth, who are frequently mistreated or turned away when they seek help from these organizations, simply because they identify as LGBT.

The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act is up for reauthorization this year, and the House and Senate are expected to introduce their respective funding bills for fiscal year 2014 in the coming weeks.

In addition to battling bullying in schools and improving existing programs for homeless youth, Congress should also seek new solutions to end LGBT youth homelessness. The bulk of the Reconnecting Youth to Prevent Homelessness Act aims to improve training, educational opportunities and permanency planning for older foster-care youth and reduce homelessness of all young people, LGBT or not. One part of the bill in particular calls on the secretary of health and human services to establish a demonstration project that develops programs that improve family relationships and reduce homelessness specifically for LGBT youth. A growing body of research from the Family Acceptance Project suggests that this family-centered approach is one of the best ways to support LGBT homeless youth, so targeted support for these programs has the potential to significantly decrease rates of homelessness.

The Reconnecting Youth to Prevent Homelessness Act was introduced in an earlier session of Congress by then-Sen. John Kerry, but has not yet been reintroduced into the 113th Congress.

For the first time, researchers have established a clear link between accepting family attitudes and behaviors towards their LGBT children and significantly decreased risk and better overall health in adulthood. The study shows that specific parental and caregiver behaviors—such as advocating for their children when they are mistreated because of their LGBT identity or supporting their gender expression—protect against depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts in early adulthood. In addition, LGBT youth with highly accepting families have significantly higher levels of self-esteem and social support in young adulthood. No prior research had examined the relationship between family acceptance of LGBT adolescents and health and mental health concerns in emerging adulthood.

Caitlin Ryan, PhD, Director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University. states:

At a time when the media and families are becoming acutely aware of the risk that many LGBT youth experience, our findings that family acceptance protects against suicidal thoughts and behaviors, depression and substance abuse offer a gateway to hope for LGBT youth and families that struggle with how to balance deeply held religious and personal values with love for their LGBT children.

The study, published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, also learned that LGBT young adults who reported low levels of family acceptance during adolescence were over three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and to report suicide attempts, compared to those with high levels of family acceptance. It also found that high religious involvement in families was strongly associated with low acceptance of LGBT children.

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A Bipartisan Victory in Georgia!

English: Great Seal of the State of Georgia

English: Great Seal of the State of Georgia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Why are they there? They are there because there are not programs currently in the community that judges can send them to,”

-Rep. Wendell Willard, speaking about the incarceration of juveniles for misdemeanor offenses or truancy charge (as reported in the Marietta Daily Journal).

It looks like that is about to change. In a show of bipartisan collaboration that is long overdue Georgia conservatives and their liberal counterparts have joined forces to fix their state’s juvenile justice system. A system that has done nothing but get consistently worse over the past two decades.

Melissa Carter at the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange writes:

Georgia leaders were recently confronted by compelling data showing that the state is expending considerable resources confining offenders who are mostly at low-risk to re-offend, and further, that these expensive and restrictive interventions are not effective. More than half of all Georgia young people in the juvenile justice system recidivate; that is, they are re-adjudicated delinquent or convicted of a criminal offense within three years of their release. This narrative is not unique to Georgia, and states recognize the need to be more effective and more efficient with their limited resources. A broader set of goals must be satisfied, including those promoting public safety, accountability, fiscal responsibility and positive outcomes for young people. Thus, now is the ideal time to correct the public policy course of the last two decades by making smart investments in our youth.

Georgia’s governor recognized this opportunity and has made juvenile justice reform a signature issue. The state is poised to enact a comprehensive statutory reform package (the state House passed the legislation last week) that includes proposals to treat status offenders through a more service-oriented Children in Need of Services (CHINS) approach, separate felonies into two classes based on the severity of the offense to allow for differentiated sentencing, mandate use of standardized assessment tools, and require improved data collection. The bill also contains a fiscal incentive program to create community-based alternatives to detention.

Programs like these are already showing results- improving outcomes for youth and their families, increasing public safety and reducing costs in five states. Seeing them implemented in a state notorious for its juvenile justice concerns is heartening. Even more important is the continuing trend of bipartisan agreement.

It is no secret that these are insanely polarized times, politically speaking. As a result collaborations across the aisle have become almost mythical. Just look at the “fiscal cliff” and the current brouhaha about sequestration. Yet on this issue there is no choice but bipartisan agreement, the numbers are that cut and dried. There are even precedents for it, as I noted here on this blog back in February of 2012 when I wrote about bipartisan progress being made in aphid and Michegan:

The idea of justice reform is often viewed as a province of the liberal left, however the current reality is that more and more conservatives are embracing it now that they are becoming aware of the harsh financial realities. Let us hope this trend continues.

We have the proof. Numerous studies over the past few decades show quite plainly that more community based approaches and rehabilitative programs are more effective at getting people out of the system, which thrills liberals. These same studies also demonstrate a much lower outlay of funds with a greatly increased return on investment, the goal of all true fiscal conservatives.

Let us hope that the common sense prevailing in Georgia leads even more states to do so. It is, after all, far more expensive to do nothing.

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Interagency Homelessness Council to Focus on Homeless LGBT Youth

USICHHomelessness is a plague upon our nation’s youth. Over a million and a half American kids do not have a roof over their heads. Think about that – a million and a half.

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) just held their final meeting for the year, a meeting whose focus was youth homelessness. The USUCH website documents that meeting and notes the disproportionate number of LGBT youth among that number.

The [Interagency] Group [on Youth] spoke to the full Council on what we know (and do not know) about youth homelessness currently and federal resources available to serve this population. The Group also spoke about the challenges of serving this population – notably the lack of consistent data available on the number of unaccompanied youth and research on the practices that help this population. We do know, however, that there are sub-populations of youth that have a much higher risk for homelessness: youth exiting child welfare or the juvenile justice system and LGBT youth. At the meeting, all of the member agencies agreed to work together to marshal appropriate resources to improve our knowledge and achieve the goal of ending youth homelessness by 2020. Collaboration will have to be at the forefront of our work at all levels of government and with service providers currently serving this vulnerable population in order to ensure that we have a better understanding of the size of the problem, the needs of different sub-groups, that successful strategies are implemented and progress is made.

This is welcome news! If the goal of ending youth homelessness by 2020 is to be achievable then this is the sort of approach needed. Each subgroup of the homeless population has different needs, and LGBT youth comprise a disturbingly large  percentage of the youth homeless population. Jerome Hunts recently took note of this in a recent guest post on ThinkProgress:

Indeed, a recent report by the National Center on Family Homelessness estimated that 1.6 million children lived on the street, in homeless shelters, with other families or in motels last year and that youth homelessness has risen 38 percent during the economic recession. Considering that an estimated 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth population is LGBT, this commitment by the USICH to work collaboratively across government and with the non-profit sector to help these sub-populations is definitely welcomed — particularly in the wake of a survey conducted by the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates (DCAYA) of close to 500 homelessness youth that resulted in 6 percent (or 19 people) of the respondents identifying as LGBT. (DCAYA believes this was due to the low number of participating sites that provide specific services to LGBT youth.)

While more data  must be collected the USICH have both acknowledged this demographic’s high risk for homelessness and confirmed their commitment to addressing the problem.

With any luck the Interagency Group on Youth will bring some concrete plans and specifics to the USICH that will help us along towards making the 2020 goal a reality.