Kids who break the law are often kids who experience trauma at home

2013-08-09T00:00:00Z 2013-08-13T14:45:16Z Kids who break the law are often kids who experience trauma at homePatty Machelor Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 09, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The children and teens who come to the court are mostly "kids in great distress," says Beverly Tobiason, clinical director for the Pima County Juvenile Court Center.

The court has shifted its approach over the last 12 years and recognizes many of the children and teens who come through need help.

In 2000, 3,462 children and teens were detained at the center. Last year that number dropped to 998. And the number sent to the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections dropped dramatically, from 265 in 2000 to 27 in 2012.

In the general population, 34 percent of children have experienced a traumatic event. In the juvenile system, Tobiason says, that soars to 75 to 93 percent.

"We have systems that are unable to handle and help these kids right now," she says. "We know when we incarcerate children, it is very harmful. It exacerbates their problems."

What has happened with the kids who come into the court is something Tobiason sees as a triad: trauma; emotional and mental distress; and addiction to alcohol or drugs as a way to self-medicate.

Early drug use, she says, "really interferes with cognitive and social functioning in children."

Of the 55 children sent to the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections in 2010, she says all of them had either a substance abuse or mental health issue. And 69 percent had both.

"For a long time, we treated our kids like little adults," she says. "Until about 10 years ago, there was not a lot of knowledge about the relationship between trauma and delinquency."

How does this come back to poverty?

About 70 percent of children they see in the court are eligible for Arizona's health-care program for its poorest residents. Tobiason says she thinks the poverty numbers are even higher.

"What I see are incredibly overwhelmed families," she says.

Common issues are unemployment, a lack of reliable transportation and frequent moves from one relative or friend's home to another. She says she sees parents working three part-time jobs and, out of necessity and lack of affordable child-care options, kids left at home without supervision.

"How do we break a cycle of poverty?" asks Laurie Robinson, El Rio Health Center's wellness and health promotion manager. "Some of the best ways are access to education and also the support to heal from some of these early traumas."

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