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Children, Violence, and Trauma: Innovations in Juvenile Justice

If you look into the backgrounds of children and youth involved in America’s juvenile justice system, chances are you will find histories of exposure to violence. Research has repeatedly shown that childhood maltreatment increases later risk for delinquency and violence.1 The trajectory of children moving from the child welfare system (as victims of abuse or neglect) into the juvenile justice system (as youthful offenders) and then into the adult criminal justice system is all too familiar. Increasingly, experts who work with this population are finding that acknowledging and understanding their traumatic histories is an important first step for these youth in redirecting their lives.

The juvenile court was explicitly created to provide an opportunity for wayward youth to be rehabilitated. Even so, many leaders in the juvenile justice field emphasize the importance of keeping young offenders out of the system altogether, whenever possible. Toward that end, a wide array of alternative, diversionary interventions has emerged to interrupt the juvenile justice to criminal trajectory with opportunities to help young offenders get back on track. The approaches described in this video share a philosophy that it is possible to address the youths’ experiences of violence and trauma while still holding them accountable for their offenses.

Children are often introduced to the juvenile justice system because they misbehave in school.2 While a child’s behavior in school may be disruptive, frequently it is not criminal. It may be a reaction to trauma—an expression of anger and frustration over stressors in the child’s life—including exposure to violence. The Clayton County Collaborative Child Study Team in Georgia is one example of a multidisciplinary team working under the auspices of the juvenile court to divert young offenders from the formal juvenile justice system. It does this by identifying the stressors in the juveniles’ lives and marshaling the appropriate services to meet their needs and the needs of their families.

Even in situations where an offender’s actions cause harm to victims or their property, it is important to consider the impact of the youth’s exposure to violence at home or in the community and seek solutions that benefit both the victim and offender. Depending on the circumstances, court-appointed mediation, such as the Alternative Dispute Resolution program in Clayton County, may be an option. Day reporting programs, similar to Clayton County’s "Second Chance" approach, offer yet another opportunity to redirect young offenders.

Even in detention facilities, there are ways to provide the treatment and support that youth need when their exposure to violence has manifested in antisocial and sometimes dangerous behavior. Juvenile corrections officials in Kalamazoo and Missouri, depicted in the video, recognize the severity of the crimes these youth have committed and the need to repay their debt to those they have victimized. At the same time, however, officials highlight the importance of acknowledging and addressing trauma in the youths’ lives as a critical precursor to helping them become productive members of society.

More than 50 years of experimenting with and evaluating interventions for juvenile offenders have taught us several critical lessons:3

Juvenile justice leaders throughout the country are applying these principles in a variety of ways. Visit Models for Change and the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative for more information about the two national-scale programs.

Related Resources


Center for Juvenile Justice Reform
National Center for Youth in Custody


Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development
Defending Childhood Initiative
Juvenile Justice Information Exchange
OJJDP Model Programs Guide


Children’s Exposure to Violence and the Intersection Between Delinquency and Victimization
The Girls Study Group—Charting the Way to Delinquency Prevention for Girls
Guide for Implementing the Balanced and Restorative Justice Model
Healing Invisible Wounds: Why Investing in Trauma-Informed Care for Children Makes Sense
Implementing Proven Programs for Juvenile Offenders: Assessing State Progress
Improving the Effectiveness of Juvenile Justice Programs: A New Perspective on Evidence-Based Practice
Juvenile & Family Justice Today, Summer 2013 Issue
The Missouri Model: Reinventing the Practice of Rehabilitating Youthful Offenders
National Child Traumatic Stress Network: Resources for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice Professionals
Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach
Promoting Recovery and Resilience for Children and Youth Involved in Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Systems
Trauma histories among justice-involved youth: Findings from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, European Journal of Psychotraumatology 2013
Trauma-Informed Juvenile Justice Roundtable: Current Issues and New Directions in Creating Trauma-Informed Juvenile Justice Systems

1 Institute of Medicine and National Research Council (2013). New Directions in Child Abuse and Neglect Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Accessed September 23, 2013:

2 A.E. Cuellar and A.M. Piehl (undated). Interactions Between Schools and Juvenile Justice. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Models for Change.

3 M.W. Lipsey, J.C. Howell, M.R. Kelly, G. Chapman, and D. Carver (2010). Improving the Effectiveness of Juvenile Justice Programs. Washington, DC: Center for Juvenile Justice Reform.

4 Formal System Processing for Juveniles. Practice Profile.

5 M.W. Lipsey, (2009). The primary factors that characterize effective interventions with juvenile offenders: A meta-analytic overview. Victims and Offenders, 4, pp. 124–147.

6 B. Holman and J. Ziedenberg (undated). The Dangers of Detention: The Impact of Incarcerating Youth in Detention and Other Secure Facilities. Washington, DC: The Justice Policy Institute.

7 A.J. Beck, D. Cantor, J. Hartge, and T. Smith. (2013). Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities Reported by Youth, 2012. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

8 The Annie E. Casey Foundation (2011). No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration. Baltimore, MD: The Annie E. Casey Foundation.