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Introduction to Trauma-Informed Care for Juvenile Offenders

Juvenile justice is shifting towards a more compassionate and nuanced approach that recognizes the profound impact of trauma on young offenders’ lives. For effective interventions, understanding the existing traumas that contribute to delinquency is paramount. By adopting a trauma-informed perspective, juvenile justice systems and organizations can address immediate legal concerns but also foster healing, resilience, and positive transformation for young people engaged in the juvenile justice system. To help professionals in this system, let’s explore the intersection of rehabilitation and mental health and cover the keys to providing trauma-informed care for juvenile offenders.

Why trauma-informed care for juvenile offenders is important

The juvenile justice system has a high number of youth with behavioral health issues. The National Center for Mental Health and Justice reports that approximately 60-70%, of youth in the care of the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder, and 60% meet criteria for a substance use disorder. Additionally, 30% of these disorders are so severe that they lead to functional impairments.

Juveniles with behavioral health issues may experience problems:

  • In relationships with family members, friends, and authority figures
  • At school (e.g., trouble concentrating in class or on a task, interacting with peers, or participating in group activities)
  • In daily living (e.g., doing chores, maintaining personal hygiene [bathing, brushing their teeth], and making decisions)

There is research to suggest that youth involved in the juvenile justice system are almost twice as likely to have an An ACE can be a single event or series of traumatic events or experiences that can have negative, lasting effects on an individual’s health and well-being.

While many young people have pre-existing mental health conditions before entering the juvenile justice system, there are stressors unique to this system that can cause or exacerbate mental health conditions. These conditions include:

  • Guilt or shame over system involvement
  • Loss of family/friends
  • Loss of personal choice, privacy, and control over their lives
  • Being threatened with abuse or being abused while in detention or other juvenile facility (e.g., physical, sexual, emotional)
  • Change of medication or lack of medication for mental illness
  • Receiving bad news from home or about their legal situation

How to provide trauma-informed care for juvenile offenders

To implement trauma-informed care for juvenile offenders, a multifaceted approach is essential. By understanding and addressing underlying traumas, we can pave the way for comprehensive rehabilitation and sustainable, positive change in the lives of juvenile offenders.

In this section, we’ll explore some of the techniques that juvenile justice systems and organizations can use to begin providing this type of care.


Screening is a process used to identify juveniles with potential behavioral health disorders.

Screenings are brief (usually 30 minutes or less) and provide information about how youth are currently feeling and if they exhibit any potential symptoms of a behavioral health disorder. They can be conducted by behavioral health professionals, non-behavioral health staff, or the juveniles themselves if it is a written questionnaire that they can complete without help.

The screening process does not result in a diagnosis. It only identifies youths who may have behavioral health issues.


An assessment is a comprehensive, in-depth evaluation that provides information to help formulate a diagnosis and identify treatment needs. Behavioral health professionals usually conduct these types of assessments. They may take several hours or even days to complete.

The process may involve:

  • Physical exam to determine if a medical condition is mimicking mental health symptoms (e.g., thyroid disorder or neurological problems)
  • Review of personal history (e.g., family history information, sources of stress or trauma)
  • Testing of cognitive and behavioral process, intelligence, and personality
  • Gathering input from individuals who have seen how the juveniles behave, such as youth workers and other staff as well as family members, guardians, teachers, social workers, etc.

The results of these assessments are used to develop a diagnosis and a treatment plan for juvenile offenders.

SAMHSA’s Six Principles of TIC

At the forefront of trauma-informed care, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has outlined six principles guiding practitioners toward a holistic approach in dealing with trauma.

These principles encapsulate a foundation built on safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, empowerment, and cultural humility. Grounded in the understanding that trauma affects individuals uniquely, SAMHSA’s framework provides a structured pathway for implementing care that not only acknowledges the impact of trauma, but actively integrates strategies to promote healing and resilience.

Exploring these principles opens a gateway to a more informed and compassionate system, which is particularly crucial in providing trauma-informed care for juvenile offenders.


The most important principle of TIC is establishing and maintaining safety. Those with a history of trauma have sustained a fundamental injury to their sense of safety. As part of the onboarding process, you should train all staff on how professional relationships can trigger trauma symptoms for the young people in their care.

Some power dynamics can mimic the dynamics of abuse, which could cause re-traumatization. Train all staff on how to foster a sense of physical, emotional, and spiritual safety through healthy boundaries and communication.

Trustworthiness and transparency

Clinical and non-clinical staff as well as managers must be consistent and communicate with clarity while maintaining professionalism and transparency. Persuasion and coercion of any type is strongly discouraged. This piece is very important in establishing mutual boundaries and expectations around trauma informed care for juvenile offenders.

Peer support

The use of peer support specialists has been considered a best practice in substance use treatment for decades. The benefits of peer support extend to those with a history of trauma. Peer support specialists have lived experience of the justice system, mental illness, trauma, and/or substance use. They receive training on how to support others with similar concerns.

Peer support specialists can provide much-needed services that argument standard therapeutic interventions including:

  • Advocacy
  • Crisis and recovery support
  • Modeling
  • Education
  • Access to resources

Collaboration and mutuality

Collaboration and mutuality involve haring power rather than unilateral decision-making in the trauma-informed care of juvenile offenders.

This can include treatment planning and goal setting and allowing the youth to take part in shaping their care. Collaboration and mutuality include shared decision-making for all key stakeholders.

Collaboration and creating goals can also help those in the juvenile justice system foster a sense of ownership over their own recovery.

Empowerment, voice, and choice

Survivors of trauma often view themselves as broken or unlovable and can feel helpless or powerless. Applying trauma-informed practices helps those in your care fully realize that they are the experts in their lived experiences and their voices are valuable and necessary.

Ensuring that juveniles are knowledgeable of their choices and empowered to make them will also be important.

Recruit people with trauma-informed perspectives whenever possible. This will help dissolve the paradigm of traumatized clients versus expert clinicians and power imbalances between staff and management. Also, having trauma-informed staff who are also survivors builds a culture that normalizes the experience of trauma healing for everyone.

Cultural, historical, and gender issues

Youth may have cultural or religious influences which affect the way they respond, or do not respond, to questions involving trauma. For example, cultural norms could lead to someone being open to sharing experiences, such as abuse. To provide the most culturally and gender-responsive services, you can:

  • Determine the role of historical trauma (i.e., trauma experienced by those in an ethnic or other marginalized group, the effects of which are communicated through generations), if any.
  • Use cultural brokers (people who can advocate/educate on behalf of a shared culture).
  • Understand how an individual’s sociocultural support network views trauma.
  • Be aware of their religious/spiritual beliefs.

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