A new report from Beyond Youth Custody (BYC) states that young people in the criminal justice system have a disproportionate amount of childhood and adolescent trauma – ranging from emotional, physical and sexual abuse, to neglect, bullying, violence, bereavement and abandonment – in their backgrounds, and that this must be identified and responded to effectively.
Young offenders are particularly at risk of the adverse effects of trauma because imprisonment can be experienced as repeat traumatisation.
Prevalence of trauma
Previous studies of trauma among groups of young people found that:
- 91% of violent young offenders have experienced abuse or loss
- 40% of female and 25% of male young people in custody have suffered violence at home
- 33% of female offenders have suffered sexual abuse
Research also indicates that offenders are more likely than non-offenders to have suffered adverse effects from traumatic experiences, which appear to be linked to offending behaviour.
The impact of trauma
Trauma can have a very wide range of impacts, with these impacts also being mediated by a number of key factors including the type of event that gave rise to the trauma, previous experience of traumatic events, individual resilience, the degree of support that an individual has, and the socio-economic context in which the individual lives. Because of wide variations in terms of these factors and their presence in individual cases, similar events can have widely varying impacts on different individuals.
In terms of development, trauma can have adverse effects on socialisation and also on the individual’s scope for forming relationships or attachments. These adverse effects are multiplied or compounded where traumatic events have been chronic or ongoing, and where they are interpersonal in nature.
Aside from its immediate negative impact, early child maltreatment interrupts normal child development, especially the processes through which emotions are managed. In order to fully understand the impact of trauma upon children and young people, it is important to consider their developmental process and how this is damaged by their experiences.
Adolescents’ key developmental tasks include being able to:
- Learn to think abstractly
- Anticipate and consider the consequences of behaviour
- Accurately judge danger and safety
- Modify and control behaviour to meet long-term goals
Trauma can impact upon adolescents by making them:
- Exhibit reckless, self-destructive behaviour
- Experience inappropriate aggression
- Over- or underestimate danger
- Struggle to imagine/plan for the future
Trauma is also associated with difficulties concerning memory and dissociation, where traumatised individuals distance themselves psychologically from experience that is perceived to be overwhelming and too difficult to process or resolve.
In terms of behaviour, trauma is strongly associated with a range of ‘problematic behaviours’ including aggression and violence, antisocial/criminal behaviour, sex offending, gambling, and substance misuse. Traumatic experience is found disproportionately in the backgrounds of individuals who engage in such behaviour, and such experience also increases the likelihood that individuals will suffer from particular mental health difficulties including depression and PTSD, and more generally, from anxiety and stress, and perceptions of low self-worth.
Periods of imprisonment can themselves have a traumatising effect on young people, and can also make existing trauma worse.
BYC’s report recommends that organisations across the children and youth justice sectors look at how they can ensure that:
- Trauma and mental health concerns are effectively identified in young offenders at the earliest opportunity, with alternatives to custody being provided where appropriate
- Rehabilitation services include efforts to support young people to develop coping skills and resilience to manage anger and stress
- Services offer trauma-informed wraparound support which acknowledges and pays attention to the trauma that many young people in the system have already experienced or witnessed (and may continue to l experience during custody and after release)
- Increased training for professionals is provided to equip them with the skills to identify trauma in young people, so that appropriate support and guidance can be provided
BYC’s report is also accompanied by an excellent practitioner’s guide to developing trauma-informed resettlement for young custody leavers.