Excerpted From: Addie C. Rolnick and Patricia Sekaquaptewa, Trauma Informed Delinquency Interventions for Native Children, 50 Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 745 (Winter 2022) (79 Footnotes) (Full Document)


RolnickSekaquaptewaWidespread recognition that trauma can lead to youth involvement in the juvenile delinquency system has spurred increasing interest in “trauma-informed” delinquency interventions and responses. This is so in large part because behaviors associated with trauma, resistance, and recovery have been labeled “delinquent acts” or “status offenses” that lead to court involvement. In many cases, juvenile delinquency is nothing more than the criminalization of traumatic responses. Accepting this link, juvenile justice policy professionals have made trauma-informed approaches a central concern as they seek to divert children away from systems that criminalize and incorporate restorative approaches to wrongdoing.

American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) children are especially likely to experience traumatic events and life circumstances. Researchers have documented a relationship between these experiences and higher likelihood of involvement in the delinquency system. In the most direct relationship, children responding to a traumatic event may become involved in the system because their survival or self-protective behaviors are in themselves lawbreaking. For example, a child who runs away to escape sexual abuse at home is breaking the law and may be referred to court. Similarly, a child who uses alcohol or drugs to cope with traumatic experiences may be referred to court for underage drinking, possession of illegal substances, public drunkenness, or driving under the influence. Here, the lawbreaking behavior is a direct response to trauma.

Compared to other groups, Native youth are especially likely to enter the system for status offenses and offenses associated with family conflict and alcohol and substance abuse--offenses that do not harm others and can be easily characterized as survival behaviors. This, along with the widespread experience of traumatic victimization among Native youth, suggests that trauma is perhaps the most important driver of delinquency for them. Girls (Native and non-Native) show a similar pattern of system involvement for survival behaviors. This suggests that Native girls might be especially at risk for this kind of trauma-delinquency pipeline.

Less directly, children who have survived trauma may become perpetrators of violence, or act out in ways that harm people or property, leading to their involvement in the delinquency system. Personal experiences with assaultive trauma are especially likely to result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and later risk of psychiatric disorders. PTSD and associated mental health and substance abuse problems can lead youth to engage in a range of behaviors that may harm others, from stealing to fighting to perpetrating sexual abuse. In this scenario, the behavior may not be a direct defensive or survival response to trauma, but it is a response to the long-term impact of that trauma. While Native youth are over-represented in arrests and referrals for status offenses, family offenses, and alcohol and drug offenses, they are not over-represented in arrests and referrals for most violent and property offenses. While both pathways from trauma to delinquency are important, the first may be especially relevant for Native youth.

Given the significance of trauma as a driver of delinquency for Native youth, any program that serves them must grapple with the question of what constitutes a trauma-informed intervention. Yet, few medical researchers have specifically examined effective approaches for treating trauma in Native youth, and few social science researchers have examined whether particular programs or approaches actually deliver state of the art trauma-informed treatment in the context of delinquency. While tribal justice systems have created innovative approaches for addressing trauma, existing research fails to link Indigenous approaches for addressing trauma with Western clinical research on trauma and trauma-informed approaches.

This commentary considers trauma-informed care for Native youth. It examines and contrasts the development and implementation of trauma-informed approaches in state and tribal juvenile delinquency systems. Nationally, about half of all Native youth who enter the delinquency system are under exclusive state jurisdiction, although some may be eligible for diversion to tribal systems. Youth living on reservations are under the jurisdiction of tribal delinquency systems. This jurisdiction is sometimes exclusive and sometimes concurrent with federal or state court jurisdiction. Overall, Native youth in state systems will usually encounter a model of care that was not developed with Native children or their communities in mind, even if the practices are billed as “trauma-informed” or “culturally competent.” Native youth in tribal systems may encounter a range of practices described as “trauma-informed,” ranging from clinical mental health treatment to community-based programs to cultural activities, most of which have not been modeled or tested.

In the clinical and social science literature, best practices for trauma-informed care are based on an abstract framework of trauma and trauma responses. This framework was not developed to address Native children's needs but has nevertheless been applied to them. It is based on an individualized definition of trauma and an individual focus on processing traumatic experiences and building healthier coping mechanisms. Trauma-informed approaches to delinquency focus heavily on screening individual children and referring them to a separate mental health system to deliver specialized counseling, while leaving them formally involved (i.e., through probation or periodic incarceration) in a delinquency system that has not fundamentally changed. As further described below, such a system may further traumatize children.

Tribal systems, on the other hand, have created their own versions of trauma-informed delinquency systems. These systems have been developed in less-than-ideal circumstances. There are not enough trained mental health providers in most tribal communities to deliver the individualized screening and therapeutic care that is the hallmark of Western models. Even if there were, medical and psychological models for treating trauma do not adequately reflect the experiences of Native youth and communities. In this context, tribes have innovated models that focus on re-envisioning the entire approach to youth misbehavior from one focused on punishment and individual rehabilitation to one focused on community responsibility and an understanding of trauma that encompasses community-level trauma and its relationship to ongoing structural disadvantage. Restrictions on available funding mean that these services are usually delivered through the juvenile delinquency system (as opposed to completely redirecting young people into a separate mental health or child welfare system), but the resulting approaches challenge basic assumptions about what a delinquency system is.

We do not mean to suggest that tribal approaches are perfect, but we believe they are the best available options when compared to state systems that retraumatize Native youth. We call for more research to support, review, and develop tribally-driven models for trauma-informed delinquency interventions. Our goal is to move beyond justice policy buzzwords to support innovative and effective strategies for protecting Native children.

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There is extensive debate about what should qualify as an EBT and how much EBTs can be adapted without losing the core aspects that have been demonstrated as being effective. Even when a model has been proven effective, questions remain about its implementation: is a particular community implementing the model with fidelity? Are there ways to improve on a tested model by making it more responsive to local needs? While it is important to evaluate EBTs developed in other communities and make helpful practices available to children in tribal communities, replication of Western models in tribal communities will always carry some problems. The historical trauma experienced by Indigenous communities is so specific, and research has established that community cohesion and culturally specific teachings are important in addressing it. This suggests that a practice should not be considered an EBT for Native children unless it has local involvement and is targeted to local problems. It is therefore important to devote research and program design resources to supporting, evaluating, and refining those “promising approaches” that are already in use in tribal juvenile systems, such as Healing to Wellness Courts. When a tribally-created model appears effective for other tribal communities, research should focus on how best to reproduce that model across communities in a way that is locally tailored but retains the core elements of the approach.