Lessons from "Kids for Cash," Part 6: System Involvement Can Traumatize—or Often Retraumatize—Youth

Juvenile Law Center,

This is the sixth blog post in our Lessons from "Kids for Cash" blog series, which explores some of the critical issues facing youth today that were brought to light by the "kids-for-cash" scandal and are depicted in the new film "Kids for Cash." "Kids for Cash" is currently playing in theaters across the country.

Amanda Lorah, one of the youth featured in the film “Kids for Cash,” grew up with her father and struggled in school to overcome her perceived social stigma of having a single-parent family. Friendships mattered to Amanda.

When one of those friendships ended badly and the girl became verbally abusive, Amanda fought with the girl in the school gymnasium. At 14, she was arrested and taken to juvenile court, where she was charged with aggravated assault. After a hasty adjudication by then-Judge Ciavarella, she was immediately shackled and taken away from her father to a secure juvenile detention facility. Amanda spent most of the next 5 years in placement in Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system, terrified and traumatized by her separation from family and friends.

Amanda Lorah

When she was released, Amanda struggled to regain her footing at her local school, and with her peers and teachers. Highly anxious, she was ultimately diagnosed with PTSD and chose to be homeschooled. To this day, she continues to struggle with depression and anxiety.  

Sadly, Amanda’s case is not uncommon. Many system-involved youth experience similar difficulties in returning to their communities because they have experienced some form of trauma during (and often prior to) their time in the juvenile justice system. According to a National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice report, youth in the juvenile justice system suffer from PTSD up to eight times the rate of youth of the same age in the general population.

Youth can be exposed to trauma at many different points of their involvement in the system: when they are shackled and forcibly taken from their families in court; when they are strip-searched upon entering detention; when they are treated like hardened criminals for what is often nothing more than typical adolescent behavior; and when they are placed out of their homes for long periods of time, sometimes without any contact from family. Conditions in facilities can be traumatic—we recently settled a case in New Jersey where a boy was held in isolation for nearly seven months.

These experiences alone are enough to traumatize youth who come from stable homes and supportive families—let alone the hundreds of thousands of youth who enter the system each year with trauma-riddled pasts.

Youth in the juvenile justice system suffer from PTSD up to eight times the rate of youth of the same age in the general population.

A recent survey by the Institute for Safe Families found that more than one out of three adults in Philadelphia grew up in a household with family members who abused alcohol, drugs, or other illicit substances, and two out of five adults saw or heard violent incidents while growing up.

For youth in these situations—who come into the system from high-violence communities, or who have suffered physical, sexual or emotional abuse at the hands of a caregiver or witnessed substance abuse by a family member—system involvement only serves to build upon their traumatic past. It weakens their already fragile emotional states, and destroys their coping mechanisms, leaving them unable to “bounce back” from system involvement and successfully rejoin society. This cycle of trauma is why so many youth who enter the system never leave it.

How Can We Solve This Problem?

Advocates have begun to identify ways that courts can better serve traumatized youth when they enter the system in order to prevent further traumatization. Here are some examples:

1. Attorneys must be educated on the high rates of childhood trauma—particularly among youth entering the juvenile justice system—and must hold courts and agencies accountable for making sure that the juvenile justice system helps—not harms—youth. To help do this, the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law published a trauma assessment toolkit for attorneys. At the same time, the U.S. Attorney General and the U.S. Department of Justice created the Defending Childhood Initiative to address childhood trauma.

Juvenile Law Center hosted a convening in January 2013 with national experts from the legal, mental health, and public health fields to discuss the effects of trauma on system-involved youth. Our convening explored how trauma research can lead to new legal arguments that would help lawyers better advocate for traumatized youth, both in the courtroom and in institutional placements like juvenile detention facilities.

Harmful practices like strip-searching or shackling youth can be traumatizing and should only be allowed in the most extreme cases.

Stay tuned for our forthcoming report on our findings from that convening—or sign up for our email list to be the first to know when this publication is issued.

2. Policymakers must enact bans on practices like shackling and strip-searching that unnecessarily traumatize children. As we argued in our amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2009 school strip-search case: strip searches inflict harm on children and should only be conducted if the benefit from discovering contraband outweighs the harm inflicted upon the child. Under any other circumstance or if done by someone other than law enforcement, this act would be considered sexual assault. Restraining kids during court proceedings—in handcuffs, chains, or shackles—is also a harmful practice that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in light of the “kids-for-cash” scandal, now strongly discourages through its Rules of Court. These practices should be allowed only in the most extreme cases.

3. Children and their families should have access to high-quality, trauma-informed interventions and supports in the community – both prior to or in lieu of system involvement. The best way to avoid re-traumatizing youth through juvenile justice system involvement is to keep them out of the system altogether.

We readily acknowledge the prevalence and reality of PTSD among veterans coming home from war. It is time to recognize that many children experience comparable forms of exposure to violence, instability, fear and trauma in their own homes and in their communities. We must make sure that the system itself—which at its best is supposed to help youth—doesn’t add to their suffering.

Find out more about the effects of childhood trauma on the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s website.

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Susan Vivian Mangold, Executive Director; Marsha Levick, Deputy Director and Chief Counsel,