ACE Detection and Treatment: A Holistic Approach for Foster Youth

As explained in my previous posts, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are detrimental to juvenile development and have lasting affects that shape adult behavior. Therefore, the subsection of youth in the foster care system is vulnerable to the detrimental affects of ACEs and should be afforded additional care and services.

But since ACEs seem to be fairly pervasive, how do we determine who has ACEs and how many they have?

Implementation of a Universal Form of ACE Testing:

The 1998 Kaiser-CDC study that introduced ACEs found that 52% of participants reported at least 1 ACE, and 25% of participants had more than 2 ACEs. It is unlikely that the Kaiser-CDC ACE findings have decreased given that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, greatly surpassing our neighbors abroad.  In the US, almost 1 in 28 children have a parent who is incarcerated. For that reason, it is important that a standardized ACE test is implemented as a base determination of child trauma and as a mechanism to assess what services may be beneficial to youth who are entering the dependency system.

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What Youth Need

Now that we have discussed how the basic needs of children include love, protection, a sense of nurturing and belonging, stability, and support, how do we ensure that youth within the foster care system are provided with these staples so they need not seek them from outside influences such as gangs? In this post, I will talk about how community-based services can help minimize and hopefully prevent gang involvement for youth within the foster care system, as well as ways in which we, as members of the community, may be able to provide these children with some sense of stability and consistency while they are in the chaos that is currently the foster care system.

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Gangs as Pseudo-Families: Giving Youth What They “Need”

From the outside looking in, gangs are comparable to family systems. In fact, as I will explain below, some gangs explicitly refer to themselves as “families” or “brotherhoods” and have mottos that encompass this familial idea. Robert Muller, a psychologist specializing in trauma, explained “that young adults join gangs because they both act as a surrogate family, as well as provide a sense of belonging…” Based on interviews conducted with current and former gang members, Muller stated:

Several gang members said that being part of a gang meant you were never alone in the world, which is similar to how many people describe being part of a close-knit family or group of friends. Gangs provide members a sense of belonging and protection they do not receive from other relationships or experiences in life.

(emphasis added)

Is this sense of belonging and protection what attracts children to gangs in the first place? The interviews Muller relied on revealed that “Bloods, Crips, and MS13 members all say they can identify with ‘Scarface.’ The feeling of being an outsider, dismissed and looked down on, is what gang members say drew them to their crews.” This explains why children in the foster care system may be more prone to joining gangs: they are often times, unfortunately, labelled as outsiders and looked at differently in comparison to children who are not involved in the child welfare system – a key reason they may feel alone and like they do not belong anywhere.

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Inequality for Youth: Why Do Foster Youth & Juvenile Offenders Receive Different Treatment?

I. Introduction: How Does Society Want To Treat Its Children?

            There is a shared belief in society that children should grow up in environments that are conducive to living healthy and productive lives. There are certain things that we believe that all children need and deserve. Those beliefs are even enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which sets out the rights that must be realized for children to develop their full potential: to be free from hunger and want, neglect and abuse. When these things might be lacking, society has in place mechanisms to try and remedy those deficiencies. Judge Leonard P. Edwards, in an article for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, wrote that “[w]hen the family fails or is unable to rear its child within acceptable norms, society has an interest in intervening to achieve its own goals.” Children are our future and it is the shared goal of a society to raise them as best we can. However, there are times when circumstances compel the state to act in the best interest of the child.

            It is because of that fact that society has procedures and systems to protect and nurture children to the best of our ability. Some youth are removed from their unsafe homes and placed into foster care and some youth commit offenses and are then incarcerated. In my last post, I wrote about how children in the juvenile justice system face similar traumas as children in the foster care system might experience and are often even the very same children, yet the treatment they receive is vastly different. The question is why? What is different about the youth that would necessitate a difference in treatment? These youth are often the same and they have all experienced similar trauma. Yet, because of a few different circumstances surrounding the trauma these youth might be experiencing (being removed from their homes and placed in foster care vs. being removed from their homes and being incarcerated) they receive different support.

            Society also collectively believes that children under a certain age lack a “level of maturity, thought process, decision-making, and experience” compared to individuals above the age of majority. We therefore generally distinguish between children and adults with regard to criminal culpability “We punish [criminal acts] because we believe such harm is morally deserved by a particular individual for a particular act.”  However, is that what we want for our children? We recognize that children should be treated differently than adults and that rehabilitative measures would be better for them and society, yet the reality is considerably different. In Miller v. Alabama (2012), a 14-year-old committed murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Supreme Court held that mandatory life imprisonment without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, writing “that children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing. Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform…they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.”

There is certainly a different societal view on the two populations, foster youth and juvenile justice youth, but they are all still children and youth that are deserving of all that we believe children deserve. Both systems can be traumatizing, but we tend to think one set of youth deserve what they are getting because they have committed some criminal/delinquent act. This is especially true for children and youth that commit particularly heinous or violent crimes because instinctively, we believe they should be punished.  This idea is given credence in Chief Justice Roberts’s Miller  dissent, where he wrote “society may determine that [protecting the innocent from violence] requires removing those guilty of the most heinous murders from its midst, both as protection for its other members and as a concrete expression of its standards of decency.” Yet the fact that these children and youth still are treated differently despite experiencing similar trauma is unjust. These children all deserve similar support when they experience difficult circumstances.

            In this post I will go through a brief overview of the criminal justice system and juvenile justice system as well as the theories underlying them. Then I will discuss issues with the juvenile justice system and its implementation and some of the realities of juvenile justice. I will also discuss some reforms to the issues addressed. Finally, I will discuss possible policy suggestions and further plans of action.

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DIY Trauma Training for Foster Parents

One of the factors contributing to placement instability is children’s trauma and foster parents’ lack of knowledge. All children in foster care suffer from some kind of trauma that stems from things like neglect, abuse, or family separation. This trauma manifests in a number of ways, including varying degrees of behavioral issues. As I will show, a child’s reaction to an event may seem inexplicable to a foster parent unless that parent understands the ways in which trauma drives behavior. Without comprehensive trauma training, foster parents might interpret the behavior as defiant rather than fearful. Understanding trauma will allow foster parents to ask, “What happened to this child?” instead of “What’s wrong with this child?” This promotes a healthier bond between foster parents’ and their child and in effect helps reduce placement instability.

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Families and the National Foster Home Shortage

There are not enough foster homes in the United States, and there haven’t been enough for a long time. When I first started researching the state of foster care, I encountered article after article about the national foster home shortage. The takeaway seemed to be this: there is a really serious trend of more kids needing care and fewer foster homes nationwide. While the data does show this to be true, all the articles seem to be missing a pretty crucial piece of information. If there aren’t enough homes, where are the kids going? I reached a lot of dead ends trying to answer this question. What I eventually found is arguably the most important part of this story: the foster home shortage may have eventually led to an increased focus on placing kids with their relatives.

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The Crossroads Between Gangs, Family, and Foster Care

“Blood is thicker than water” – an age-old, celebrated motto emphasizing the idea that family should come before anyone and anything else. This mentality has been and continues to be especially popular amongst members of the adolescent community. However, in light of such, that prompts a question about kids in the foster care system who lack the traditional “family” that kids who aren’t in the system have: who’s their “family”? 

My name is Sam Persaud and I am currently a third-year law student at Santa Clara University School of Law. Ever since I can remember, I’ve dreamed of becoming a prosecutor one day, so naturally I began working as a law clerk for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office the summer after my first year of law school. Since then, I’ve worked in several different units within the SFDA’s Office, including the Juvenile Division. There, I saw the collaborative and restorative nature of the justice system in its truest form. However, I also noticed that a vast number of the youth who ended up in the juvenile justice system were kids from the foster care system.

What I found particularly concerning was that many of these children had some sort of gang affiliation. This prompted me to ask whether gangs are offering kids something that the foster care system lacks? Or whether gangs are simply manipulating this “blood is thicker than water” ideology to lure kids into their criminal enterprises? To explain these questions, I will explore whether gangs act as a substitute family for kids who come from dysfunctional home situations. In other words, are gangs pseudo families for children who crave a sense of belonging, and do kids join gangs to counteract attachment deficits?

I will begin this process by first examining why “families” are so important to the positive development of youth, and what exactly “families” provide that makes young people feel a sense of fulfillment that in turn allows them to thrive. In this same post I will explain why most children involved in the foster care system lack what traditional families provide, and why that ultimately leads to gang affiliations.

I will then explore why is it that so many gangs have family references despite so many gang members coming from dysfunctional families? (For example, Nuestra Familia, Aryan Brotherhood, Black Guerilla Family, and so on.) Is this a means of compensating for the absence of biological or nuclear family ties by replacing that with criminal, gang-related ties? Essentially, are gangs a substitute family who provide a sense of belonging for its young member? 

I will then explore theories about how gangs may feel like the only “family” these children have, and how we may be able to fix this problem by making effective changes in the foster care system. In order to fix the problem, we must first understand it, so I am excited to explore this topic with you all!