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Juvenile Justice Settings

Tailored experience for youth-serving professionals in juvenile justice settings

Reaching Teens Portal for Juvenile Justice Settings

Bennie Medlin, MA

Chief Juvenile Probation Officer, Tarrant County Juvenile Services; Former Division Chief Executive Officer for Ramsay Youth Services, Inc.; Former Vice President of Operations for the Juvenile Division of Youth Services International, Inc.

Shelley Aguirre, MA

Jennifer Farnum, Psy.D.

Bill Menchaca, Psy.D.

Why This Work Is Important in This Setting/Discipline

It is important to realize that youth involved with juvenile justice are not inherently different from any other youth in the community. Although one exception that sets them apart is they must endure the stigma of being involved in the juvenile justice system. The more these youths can be seen through the eyes of caring and compassionate adults, the more likely they can develop in ways that promote healthy life trajectories and human flourishing.

It is equally important to realize that structure and discipline also promote human flourishing. Many youth involved with juvenile justice did not experience healthy development and were deprived of opportunities for structure and discipline during their childhood. It is important to note that discipline has its roots in teaching and mentoring. Although punishment can be a deterrent to delinquent behavior, it does not promote positive youth development. Children should not be responsible for raising themselves; therefore, the adults surrounding a child are responsible for creating a world where important life lessons are taught and mentored. In this context, punishments can feel punitive, whereas consequences linked to behaviors can be instructive. Corrective actions are particularly helpful when clearly linked with adults who express genuine caring about the youth’s well-being.

The juvenile justice system is, at its core, an institution designed to shape the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of youth. The ultimate goal of this endeavor is to improve the lives of the youth we serve, reduce juvenile delinquency, and promote safe communities. Perhaps the first step in accomplishing this goal is to transform the mindset of the juvenile justice system about the reasons youth engage in delinquent behavior. To facilitate this shift in thinking we must integrate our understanding of adolescent development into our policy and procedures. Furthermore we must fully consider the impact of adverse childhood experiences on child development and how this contributes to delinquent behavior.

Determining the most effective interventions to promote healthy attitudes and beliefs with corresponding prosocial behaviors is a core objective of the juvenile justice system. The traditional corrections model may yield compliance and control; however, this strategy alone is not sufficient to promote the transformation necessary for lasting change. The juvenile justice system must integrate and implement evidenced-based practices that have been proven effective at promoting positive youth development and resiliency.

The material contained in Reaching Teens, especially the juvenile justice portal, provides a roadmap of the important foundational concepts and interventions to help the juvenile justice system accomplish its mission, vision, and values.

How Does This Fit with Trends in Juvenile Justice?

The modern juvenile justice system was created over a century ago to respond to the developmental differences of wayward youth. The intent was to create a system that would provide interventions to assist a young person with conforming to societal norms and avoiding the stigma of being involved in the adult criminal justice system. Juvenile justice has evolved over the years to its current system of probation officers, courts, community supervision, treatment, and residential programs. However, it is reasonable to argue these practices are rooted in the same compliance, control, and punishment philosophies which characterize the modern adult criminal justice system. Over the years, juvenile justice practitioners have evolved to embrace the use of research, data, and evidence-based practices. Recently the juvenile justice system has focused on the use of validated risk and needs assessment, motivational interviewing, and trauma-sensitive practices, and yet the system remains grounded in 20th century practices. Reaching Teens provides practical applications to move the juvenile justice system into the 21st century.

Key conversations emerging over the past 15 years are leading to a real shift in thinking about best practices in juvenile justice. More than ever, we know what works to create better outcomes for youth in juvenile justice systems. We must apply the “risk-need-responsivity” principles to shift from punitive practices toward individualized assessment and treatment of youth fostering rehabilitation and reintegration into communities. We must acknowledge and understand the impact of trauma on the adolescent brain and development. We must underscore the importance of serving with cultural humility and of building resiliency.

We can become a 21st century juvenile justice system, but to do so, we must be intentional and use an evidence-based approach. What would that system look like? It would be developmentally oriented, be trauma sensitive, use the knowledge and science of adolescent brain development to help us better understand behavior and prepare us to optimally communicate with youth (see Chapter 15, “The Teen Brain”), and be centered on recognizing, reinforcing, and building youth resilience. It must be a system that does not hold as a goal to get youth through probation but aspires to help youth develop the social, vocational, and educational skills needed for long-term success.

The developmental approach needs to recognize where youth are cognitively, socially, and emotionally—it is about so much more than age. It recognizes that any system that treats all people younger than 18 years uniformly misses an opportunity to reach youth and to foster their optimal development. (See Chapter 13, “Understanding and Supporting Healthy Adolescent Development”). It recognizes, too, how trauma, abuse, and substance use undermine healthy development and that youth with these forces in their lives are deserving of focused attention. It recognizes that mental-health challenges can also interfere with healthy development and are deserving of appropriate treatment offered without shame or stigma. This approach recognizes that unlawful acts committed by adolescents happen at a time when they are likely to take risks and potentially exercise poor judgment, as they are learning to stretch their boundaries. It goes a step further to recognize that people are placed at particular risk when adults in their lives were not there to offer appropriate guidance about boundaries in the first place, and that we can compensate now for that lack of proper instruction.

We should move away from correctional models that focus on compliance and control, embracing a developmental approach that recognizes the unique needs, as well as context, of adolescence and responds to delinquent behavior in ways that build resilience and contribute to positive youth development.

What Is Available in This Portal?

  • Philosophical approach (Section 1).
  • Understanding/connecting/communicating with adolescents (Sections 3-7). These sections offer applied skill-sets.
  • Supporting parents (Section 8).
  • Caring for ourselves (Section 11).

Implementation Example: Tarrant County Juvenile Services

Tarrant County Juvenile Services participated in a 3-year implementation pilot of the Reaching Teens curriculum in conjunction with the Mental Health Connection, a community-wide collaboration of youth-serving agencies (see Chapter 7 “Building a Strength-Based Community to Support the Emotional, Behavioral, and Mental Health of Youth” for more information about the community-wide initiative and overall results of the process evaluation). Over the course of the initiative all 250 employees participated in training, including probation staff, detention staff, clerical staff, education staff, and supervisory and senior leadership.

Rather than providing traditional staff trainings, the implementation was structured in a learning community format where the material was reviewed over the course of a year. The staff were asked to read selected chapters, watch videos, and then meet with their team every 6 weeks to discuss the material. Five supervisory staff were selected to be “Reaching Teen Guides” (RTG) that were assigned to facilitate the process for each team. This allowed all staff within the department to not only become familiar with the concepts and implement it into their daily interactions with the youth, but to have all staff speak a common language. One of the biggest differences noted was our ability to see youth in our department from the perspective of “What happened to you?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?”.

We also went through this process with the senior leadership team, selecting chapters most relevant to organizational-level implementation of this strength-based, trauma-sensitive approach. The specific goal for this group was to review the material from an organizational perspective, to identify ways to operationalize the philosophy in our policies and business practices, and to identify existing policies and practices that may not support the philosophy or may even be incompatible with the philosophy. This process helped to inform our ongoing strategic planning initiatives as we continue this journey of becoming a model for a 21st Century Juvenile Justice System.

Selected Chapters for Juvenile Justice Settings


Reference Material for Specific Issues and Populations

Helping Young People Learn Self-Regulation Both to Calm Their Minds and to Improve their Behavior

Many youth-serving professionals prefer to learn large topics as a unit. Reaching Teens has over 15 such units, which can be accessed here. This one is particularly useful to professionals working within the juvenile justice system.

Young people engaged within the juvenile justice system not only endure the stressors that come with navigating our system, but often contend with chronic stress resulting from years of adverse childhood experiences. For these youth, empowering them with abilities to recognize their stressors and learn new coping and self-regulation skills is key to ultimately helping them regain a sense of control over their own lives. Helping a young person to identify the benefits of employing positive coping strategies and behaviors may reduce the risk of recidivism and can lead to increased social-emotional well-being.

In addition, as we learn to guide them towards self-regulation, we can support them to exhibit better behaviors in our setting.

Primary Chapters
Supportive Chapters


Case Examples for Group Learning and Discussion/Personal Reflection

Each chapter offers group learning and discussion and/or personal reflection exercises to help develop specific skill sets. Knowing the broader context of young people's lives makes the difference in our ability to build on their strengths and support them to overcome their challenges. This is so central to our work that we should routinely consider youths' environmental contexts, strengths, and challenges as a first step to addressing any issue. Rather than having you need to go through this process with new youth in each chapter, we want you to be able to focus on the chapter-specific skill-set. Therefore, we suggest you get to know the youth described below and use them as consistent case examples. You may choose instead to substitute in actual cases if it helps you and your colleagues better learn the material.

Youth 1

Brian is a 16-year-old Hispanic male who was initially referred to juvenile services for Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle and Runaway. While waiting in the community for his court hearing, he was referred again to juvenile services for two Burglary of Vehicle charges.

As a baby, Brian was raised by his mother, who struggled with methamphetamine addiction. While in his mother’s care, records indicate that Brian experienced neglect and physical and sexual abuse. Brian eventually came to the attention of Child Protective Services (CPS) and was subsequently removed from his mother at the age of six. While in the custody of CPS, Brian lived with various family members and foster homes. As he became older, he started experiencing increasingly more severe emotional disturbance and behavior problems. Consequently, he was admitted to various group homes, residential treatment centers, and psychiatric hospitals. Brian eventually returned to his mother’s care once again when he was 16 years old.

Strengths: Brian, his mother, and his maternal grandmother all live together. The family are very happy to be back together and enjoy cooking as a family together. Brian’s mother describes him as caring, sweet, and affectionate. He has younger cousins that come over to the home and he is very nurturing and protective of them. Brian is a sensitive youth and has a strong aversion to aggression and violence.

Challenges: Because of early adverse childhood experiences that disrupted Brian’s development, he struggles with a fear of losing his relationship with his mother. He has a generalized sense of anxiety related to a fear of something bad happening and being separated from his family again. His mother describes two sides to Brian: the sweet and affectionate side and a second side that is angry, resentful, and rejecting of his family. At the age of 14, he began smoking marijuana on a regular basis to help cope with overwhelming emotions, which led to associating with delinquent peers involved in various criminal behaviors.

Youth 2

Thomas was 15 years old the first time he was referred to juvenile services. Over the course of one school year, he was referred five times to juvenile services for assault- and threat-related charges that occurred at his school.

Thomas’s mother struggled with substance abuse throughout Thomas’s life. Her presence was sporadic throughout his development. Thomas was eventually placed with his maternal grandmother, who has raised him from the ages of 6 to 14 years old. His grandmother has been the most consistent caregiver in Thomas’ life. At 15 years old, Thomas went back to live with his mother and he now goes back and forth between his mother and his grandmother. He is not happy about this arrangement and is very angry and resentful toward his mother. He claims that she only wants him for “his [disability] check.”

Strengths: Thomas has well-developed language skills and a sense of humor, which helps him establish relationships with ease. He has a very kind heart and, if his trust is earned, Thomas is incredibly loyal and compassionate. Thomas also has learned that he needs deep sensory input when he is unable to self-regulate his emotions. He has learned to ask for a hug when he is beginning to become upset, which is truly remarkable given his history of being physically restrained when upset.

Challenges: Thomas was placed in special education services in kindergarten due to emotional disturbance. Thomas’ overall intellectual ability is in the below-average range; however, there is significant variability within the cognitive components that make up his overall intellectual ability. Put another way, he may excel in some areas but has significant struggles in other areas, which presents a unique challenge, especially within the classroom. Consequently, Thomas can become frustrated easily in the classroom, and this frustration is frequently directed toward his teachers who are struggling to find the right approach to help Thomas be successful in the classroom.

Thomas struggles to verbalize his emotional needs appropriately. He does not trust that adults can or will help him when he expresses an unmet need. Thomas struggles to maintain behavioral control when his emotions are extreme. During these episodes, his aggressive behavior at school can escalate to the point that he would pose a serious safety risk.

Youth 3

Vanessa was 13 years old the first time she was referred to juvenile services. She was placed on multiple terms of probation for charges related to assaults on family members. She remained on probation until she was 17 years old

Child Protective Services was frequently involved with Vanessa’s family due to allegations of abuse and neglect that occurred throughout her childhood. She was raised by her biological mother; her biological father has been incarcerated for most of Vanessa’s life. Vanessa and her mother have experienced significant conflict, which was exacerbated by her mother’s struggles with alcoholism. The home environment became more unstable when Vanessa was 10 years old and her mother married Vanessa’s stepfather. This was a violent relationship and both Vanessa and her mother were physically assaulted by the stepfather. Vanessa at times would try to protect her mother from the abuse.

Strengths: Vanessa never hesitates to advocate for herself, although sometimes her advocacy can be intense. Vanessa is a fierce advocate for justice and does not hesitate to stand up to perceived injustice. This is true for incidents that personally affect her but also injustices that she witnesses others experience. She is especially sensitive to injustices impacting younger or more vulnerable youth. Vanessa values honesty above all else. She has an uncanny ability to “read people” and can determine how genuine and honest they are being with her.

Challenges: As Vanessa became older she began running away from home to escape the chaos and abuse. She also started fighting back and was determined not to let anyone hurt her again. Vanessa has become increasingly defiant and tough-minded. She is ready to fight anyone that poses a threat. Unfortunately, her threat detection can be over-sensitive and sometimes she misperceives actions as being threatening when they are benign. She began spending more time in the street and has been exposed to drugs, gangs, and various other criminal activities. She began adapting to her surroundings and reportedly feels more comfortable on the street than at home.

Youth 4

Elizabeth is a 16-year-old female who has been referred to juvenile services for Runaway, Theft, Assault with Bodily Injury, and Assault on a Public Servant.

For as long as she can remember, Elizabeth says she was locked in a tiny room for hours while her mother worked as a sex worker. She would be deprived of food and water and had to stay in the room until her mother’s clients left the small house. Some days, Elizabeth would be allowed to come out between appointments, grab some food, and return to the room. Through the thin walls, she could hear her mother performing sexual acts or being beaten by johns. Elizabeth eventually learned that—by going deep in thought, replaying songs in her head, or imagining stories—she could climb beyond the walls of that room and out of earshot of the noises. She got so good at this that she could escape almost as soon as the door was locked.

When Elizabeth was ten, her mother began sex-trafficking her. Two years later her mother kicked her out of the house. Confused, distraught, and homeless at age twelve, Elizabeth met a man who said he would take care of her. She began “dating” Vince and, at first, he provided her with nice clothes and made her feel special. After a few months, Vince forced her to perform a sexual act with his friend. From then on, she was expected to make money for the house, where she and three of Vince’s “girlfriends” lived.

Strengths: Even though Elizabeth was living with Vincent in a chaotic and criminal environment, she attended school and enjoyed several of her classes. She writes poetry and enjoys reading and drawing. While her school attendance is often sporadic, she feels school brings a sense of routine and normalcy to her life, which she appreciates. When Elizabeth was fourteen, she lived with a foster family for a short time until Vincent found her and forced her to live with him. The foster family is willing to assist Elizabeth and are open to letting her live with them again.

Challenges: Due to Elizabeth’s severe trauma and abuse history, she is angry, distrusting, and resentful. She feels that everyone is “out to get her” and only wants her around to use her. During her recent detention stay, she tested positive for Chlamydia. On many days, she refuses to enter detention programming and screams uncontrollably when a male staff member enters the housing unit. She is willing to come out of her room for craft activities and for classes that have a female teacher. Elizabeth has stated many times that she does not trust or feel connected to anyone.

Youth 5

Maya is a 15-year-old female who lives with her mother and three younger siblings. She was referred to juvenile services for Assault with Bodily Injury – Family Violence and Theft. Her mother was only 16 years old when she was born, and her father was 19. He was abusive to the mother, and Maya would intervene to protect her mother. Child Protective Services were involved with the family over the years, but little changed in the home. One night Maya’s mother was beaten unconscious and had to be admitted to the hospital. Her father was arrested and Maya and her siblings were placed with a foster family for over a month until their mother was released from the hospital. After Maya’s father went to prison, her mother moved a man into the home and he began abusing Maya, her mother, and her siblings.

Strengths: Maya is currently in the 10th grade and exceeds her teacher’s expectations in English and creative writing, but is having difficulty with her other subjects. Her history teacher has indicated that she checks out when discussing topics related to violent events against a person, like the assassinations of President Lincoln or Martin Luther King. According to most of her teachers, she is a bright student who does not seem to care about the assignments. Maya is highly protective of her siblings and cooks and cleans for them when her mother is at work.

Challenges: When Maya arrived at the juvenile correctional facility, she appeared to be underweight, although physically healthy and uninjured. A urinalysis showed that Maya was positive for marijuana. She informed staff she only uses when things are tough and she needs to relax. Due to Maya’s upbringing, she feels she is the caretaker for her siblings and argues with her mother about what is best for them. She does not respect her mother’s rules and feels she can run the household better than her mother.

Youth 6

Kalif is a 16-year-old male who was referred to the juvenile detention center for Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon and Possession of Marijuana.

During his early childhood, this family lived in Ohio, Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee. His mother and his father lived together, but never married. Kalif’s father believed in teaching his boys to fight and proving their “manhood”. His mother protected Kalif and his younger brother from this abuse and often separated from the father on several occasions. When Kalif was seven, his mother died of Sickle Cell Anemia and his father gained custody of him and his brother. Two years later, one evening a neighbor reported that the father had duct-taped the boy’s hands, beat them, and attempted to drown Kalif in the toilet. When asked why, the father said that Kalif wouldn’t stand up for himself and fight his younger brother. When the police arrived, Kalif denied that his father had done this, but the father was arrested and Kalif and his brother went to live with their maternal grandmother. At sixteen, Kalif was arrested for stabbing his brother for stealing his jacket.

Strengths: Kalif is in the 10th grade and performs poorly in most of his classes. His best grade is in music appreciation. While his grades are poor, all teachers describe Kalif as “an absolute delight”. Kalif volunteers to assist staff since being in detention. He is courteous and polite. He expresses remorse for hurting his younger brother and says that his brother and grandmother are the most important people in his life. He is protective of his grandmother and wants to get back home so he can assist her since she is older and has difficulty with some household chores.

Challenges: Kalif states that his mind is always racing and he has a hard time relaxing. He blames his father for his anger and for stabbing his brother. He indicates that fighting was normal when he was with his father and he would be forced to fight his cousins and uncles at family gatherings. If he or his brother lost a fight, they would not be allowed to eat for several days. Kalif says that he has difficulty concentrating, has no idea how to study for a test, and does not understand what he reads. While he becomes angry very quickly and never backs down from a fight, his preference is to listen to music and “hang-out” in a calm environment.

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