Juvenile Law Center

September 15, 2017

Navigating the Path to a Successful Career: Providing Support for Trauma-Exposed Youth in the Juvenile Justice System

posted by Patrick Took, Juvenile Law Center Legal Intern

Part Three in a blog series about Juvenile Law Center's new report on career pathways for system-involved youth, Improving Access to Career Pathways for Philadelphia's Child Welfare and Juvenile justice System Involved Youth.

Read the series kick off post here >>

Read part one here >>

Read part two >>


In the past few weeks, Juvenile Law Center has been highlighting ways in which young people involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems are uniquely challenged in pursuing career opportunities, as well as supports that can help them overcome these barriers. But while some supports and programs can be creatively tailored to reach system-involved youth, youth placed in juvenile justice institutions face a fundamental obstacle in their career pathway: they have been removed from their communities and lack access to the full array of educational and job opportunities available to their peers. Accordingly, the best long-term solution to the many barriers to career success “disconnected” youth face is to keep them out of the juvenile justice system entirely and, in particular, out of juvenile detention and correctional institutions.

Although the goal underlying the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation—meaning that when youth leave the system they will be better off than when they entered, ready to gain employment, and be contributing members to society—most juvenile facilities do little to prepare youth for adulthood and fail to properly treat the issues contributing to problematic behaviors. Many facilities are ill-equipped to provide appropriate treatment for the roughly 75% of youth in their care who were previously victims of violent trauma. Without treatment, this trauma can manifest as behavioral health conditions, mental illness and substance abuse, all of which are present at rates two to three times more for children in the juvenile justice system. Moreover, the poor conditions in juvenile facilities can often exacerbate and even lead to further mental health problems. These issues are not new, but any proper response requires a thoughtful system-wide effort.

That’s exactly what Bob Listenbee plans to achieve. Previously serving as Chief of the Juvenile Unit of the Defender Association for 16 years in Philadelphia, Listenbee was later appointed by President Obama as Administrator of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). Now, back in Philadelphia as a Fellow with the Stoneleigh Foundation, Listenbee hopes to build bridges between the various justice system players to create a comprehensive support system for youth. He recently shared some of his innovative ideas with us.

Under Listenbee’s leadership, OJJDP issued a report finding that trauma will continue to manifest and disrupt a youth’s educational and emotional development until properly addressed. The report emphasized the implementation of “trauma-informed care,” a system-wide approach that recognizes the unique needs of youth who have experienced trauma during childhood. To effectively address trauma, ensuring it does not contribute to later involvement in the justice system, immediate intervention is necessary. Programs that provide counseling and support to young people experiencing domestic violence or gang violence at the moment of the impact have been proven effective.

Too often, trauma left untreated can manifest into involvement in the justice system. Rather than criminalizing the behaviors and incarcerating young people, further aggravating the trauma they experience, effective programs divert young people out of the justice system and into treatment programs. When youth require more supervision than just treatment, we must make sure systems provide adequate treatment programs that are individualized to meet the youth’s needs. In contrast, if trauma is left unaddressed, youth are unlikely to fully benefit from other rehabilitation programs such as job training and internships. Because of this, trauma-informed care must be included alongside other career programming so that youth can begin properly preparing gainful employment upon release. If trauma-informed care and job training are implemented successfully, our juvenile justice system can become a real instrument for positive change and rehabilitation.

Listenbee has repeatedly emphasized that just having the answers isn’t enough. The real challenge is implementing these changes across the country so we can start healing our youth as fast as possible. Addressing the root causes of incarceration will give “disconnected” youth the best chance to reach their potential and achieve their career goals.

At Juvenile Law Center, we agree that this approach will best serve not only young people but also their greater communities. We recommend it as a practice for all who are seriously interested in tackling issues of youth employment with system-involved kids.

Read part four >>

Tags:Child Welfare and Foster Care|Community and School Reentry|Juvenile and Criminal Justice|Second Chances|Trauma and Trauma Informed Advocacy

Support Juvenile Law Center

One of the most important lessons from our 40 years of experience is that children involved with the justice and foster care systems need zealous legal advocates. Your support for our work is more important now than ever before. Support