Implementing Trauma and Grief Component Therapy for Adolescents and Think Trauma for Traumatized Youth in Secure Juvenile Justice Settings

This study investigates the impact of implementing trauma informed interventions in juvenile justice settings in the USA.

Authors E Olafson et al

Published in Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol. 33 (2018)

Ford (2012) demonstrated that young people in the juvenile justice system have high rates of trauma. Estimates suggest that trauma exposure for incarcerated adolescents is at least three-times higher than that for other children and adolescents (Finkelhor et al, 2009).

Despite evidence of these links, trauma-specific interventions are not routinely available for young people involved in the juvenile justice system. Instead the focus is on reducing criminogenic attitudes and behaviours, aggression, and subsequent recidivism in young people.

Trauma-focused interventions

Trauma and Grief Component Therapy for Adolescents is a four-module intervention that was adapted for use with young people in the youth justice system. It uses group dynamics to promote emotional, cognitive, and behavioural self-regulation. The aim is to reduce "trauma-triggered reactions", aggression, high-risk behaviours, and maladaptive coping strategies, for example substance misuse.

All four modules of the intervention were completed by 30 young people, and 39 who were in a facility for up to 90 days completed Module 1.

Think Trauma is a trauma-informed training programme for professionals. It covers the impact of trauma on youth development and behaviour, the management of post-traumatic reactions and behaviours among young people, and strategies to cope with secondary trauma and compassion fatigue among staff.

The study was conducted in four youth justice sites that completed both interventions. It investigated the impact of the interventions on the young people through analysis of the following pre- and post-group measures:

  • The Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children (TSCC)
  • The UCLA Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Reaction Index (UCLA PTSD RI)
  • The Adolescent Dissociative Experiences Scale (ADES).

Study findings

The young people had experienced an average of 10 potentially traumatic or adverse events. The two most frequently cited experiences were having an imprisoned family member and witnessing someone in the neighbourhood being beaten up, shot, or killed. Other adverse experiences reported by over 50 per cent of the young people included parental emotional abuse; lengthy separation from parents; exposure to substance abuse in the home; unexpected deaths of someone close; exposure to domestic violence; and having been robbed with a weapon.

Pre- and post group scores dropped significantly, indicating improvements in the young people's mental health. In particular, there were improvements in relation to young people's symptoms of depression, anger, post-traumatic stress, and dissociation. This improvement was most notable for the young people who received all four modules compared to those who received only one module.

Incident Reports are routinely collected in youth justice facilities as a means of reporting any interaction where young people are out of control or where staff need to "put hands on" a young person for behavioural control. Two of the sites reported a reduction in the number of reports received following implementation of the interventions.

Professionals and young people reported that they had learned to recognise trauma triggers and work collaboratively to find methods to respond to these.

Staff and senior leaders described how the "culture" of their facilities had changed as a result of their training and becoming trauma informed.

Implications for practice

  • There are a number of limitations to this study including:
  • The study was conducted in the USA, which has different youth justice policy to the UK
  • There is no matched control group for comparison of the findings
  • Young people were not randomly selected to participate in the intervention
  • The study did not control for other variables such as length of time spent in custody.
  • Despite these limitations, the evidence from this study suggests that trauma-informed practice can have a positive impact for young people in the youth justice system. This mirrors findings from the Enhanced Case Management (ECM) approach used by the Youth Justice Board Cymru.

The research section for this special report is based on a selection of academic studies which have been explored and summarised by Research in Practice, part of the Dartington Hall Trust

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