Children with mental health issues are being incarcerated at shocking rates.

June 25, 2020

“Eight-year-old Dontay Davis acted out violently when the state removed him and his siblings from their home in 2005. In the years that followed, he was set on a path that advocates call the foster care-to-prison pipeline: separated from his brothers and sister, heavily medicated, shuffled between foster homes and shelters, institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital and placed for years in a restrictive treatment center. By age 19, Dontay was in a Texas prison serving three years for robbery.” -Roxanna Asgarian

Dontay’s story sounds unbelievable, but it’s unbelievably common for children in foster care. 

By age 17, over half of foster youth have experienced an arrest, conviction, or overnight stay in a correctional facility. Within 2 years of leaving the system, 1 in 4 former foster youth enter the criminal justice system.

On any given day, 48,000 children are being held away from their home because of juvenile or criminal justice system involvement. Instead of rehabilitating the children in their care, most facilities actively counteract any form of rehabilitation. They often resemble adult prisons and routinely impose harmful correctional practices like solitary confinement, strip searches, and the use of chemical and physical restraints.

In many states, publicly available juvenile records brand children as criminals, leaving a label that follows them around long after they are released--impacting employment, getting into college, enlisting in the military--the list goes on.

All of this begs the question, what is the point of having a system that chews kids up and spits them out having exacerbated the issues that sent them into that system in the first place? 

There has to be a good reason we’re doing this, right?

The reality is, no evidence suggests punishing children this severely helps them in any way. In fact it says the opposite--across the board, juvenile detention is bad for kids, and instead of improving the behavior problems that led them into the system, it makes them decidedly worse.

The entire basis for the juvenile justice system hinges on the assumption that children who misbehave do so either because they don’t know how they’re supposed to behave, or because they simply don’t want to behave. In response, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior will serve to teach them the right way to behave and “scare them straight” if they don’t want to.

But there are endless reasons why children act out that have nothing to do with whether or not they know the rules or have the desire to follow them. 

The prefrontal cortex--the part of the brain responsible for helping us think before we act--isn’t fully developed until adulthood;

Surging adolescent hormones regularly override rational decision making skills;

And the brain responds to social rewards more during adolescence than at any other stage of life, leaving kids more vulnerable to negative social influence.

When you consider that 40-80% of children in juvenile detention centers have at least one diagnosable mental illness, the entire rationale behind this system--that kids break the rules because they don’t want to behave--is quickly dismantled.

A more accurate view of childhood misbehavior--especially in cases involving trauma and mental illness--is that children behave when they can; and when they can’t, it’s because they lack important social and emotional skills to handle life’s challenges in an adaptive way.

Dr. Ross Greene has thought extensively about the challenges faced by children with behavioral problems in school settings:

“If a kid could do well he would do well. Doing well is always preferable to not doing well. It helps, of course, to have the skills to do well in the first place. If a kid isn’t doing well he must be lacking the skills. What’s the most important role an adult can play in the life of such a kid? First assume he’s already motivated, already knows right from wrong, and has already been rewarded and punished enough. Then, figure out what skills he’s lacking so you have the clearest possible understanding of what’s getting in his way. Understanding why a kid is challenging is the first step toward helping him.”

Challenging behaviors are merely the signal that a child is missing important skills, so punishing them misses the root cause and does nothing to actually correct those behaviors; instead it destroys confidence, leads to negative self-beliefs, and further exacerbates behavioral problems.

80% of foster youth struggle with significant mental illness, and nearly all foster youth have been exposed to some form of trauma; it’s clear why they’re 2.5 times more likely to enter the criminal justice system than their peers. 

So many factors come together in their lives to create behavioral problems; how can children be expected to have the skills to cope in the midst of very unstable, traumatic, and adult situations?

They can’t be. They need to be taught those coping skills.

But instead of giving them the compassion and guidance they need to develop them, we are incarcerating these children, setting into motion a cycle of trauma and criminalization. Once the label of juvenile delinquent is applied, future behavioral problems are more likely to be perceived as dangerous and criminal, which leads to future arrests. Every time a child is re-arrested, fresh trauma exacerbates reactive coping behaviors, further entrenching them in this cycle.

It’s also clear that the likelihood of incarceration is directly related to the level of instability and trauma a child is exposed to: foster youth placed in group homes--which are sometimes prison-like to begin with--are twice as likely to be incarcerated, and 90% of those with 5 or more placements will enter the criminal justice system. 

But the developing brain is exceptionally resilient and pliable. Every time we respond to behavioral problems with compassion, patience, love, and guidance, we are breaking this cycle and tapping into the massive potential locked inside these kids. 

It’s not about accepting or excusing bad behavior, it’s about teaching kids to replace reactive coping behaviors with productive coping skills that serve them. 

It’s not often an easy process; many of these children are so trapped in fear, self-doubt, and negative self-talk that it can take years to recover, but it gives them a chance to learn how to love themselves, cope adaptively, and achieve their goals.

That’s why it’s our mission at House of Providence to restore childhood by leading children who have experienced so much down the path of healing through therapy, education, and unconditional love. We have the privilege to see child after child come to life before our very eyes as they learn not only that they are worthy of love, but how to love themselves and unlock their full potential--and that’s truly a beautiful thing.

Related Articles

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Children with mental health issues are being incarcerated at shocking rates.

What happens to kids who age out of foster care?

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