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Violent Children

Recently, I was sitting in a meeting at the children’s residential psychiatric treatment facility I work at. As part of the transition team, I listened as our clinicians and program coordinators discussed intakes, discharges and client cases. One case we’ve been following for a while because of the extreme nature of it came up as we tried to determine how our agency would be continuing to serve this child, if at all. This child, a 10 year old classified as developmentally disabled, is a client of our day treatment program which means he receives therapeutic, psychiatric and school services from our agency. He has been with us for several years. The discussion about this child started with a briefing of his latest violent episode. This is a child who can go from zero to violent with no provocation. Driving with him alone in the car is not an option for his family, clinical staff or DD personnel. It’s not safe because of his propensity to strike out at others. It doesn’t matter if it’s a child or an adult; he strikes out indiscriminately. This particular weekend, he had hurt a DD worker badly enough to seek medical attention. This is not unusual for the children we serve. What was interesting was the reactions from the various members of the committee.

Mental Health versus Juvenile Justice

Many of the members of the team discussed how the DD system and mental health didn’t seem to be meeting the needs of the child. He was not safe to transport. He was not safe in a family. He was not safe in a regular school setting. Instead of looking at punishing the behaviors of the child, the dialogue revolved around what kind of services this child needed to manage his violence and what kind of support the family, both biological and foster, needed from social service professionals. They recognized not holding him accountable for his actions was not in his best interest because he was learning to hurt with impunity but also it created an unsafe environment for the community. Ethically, we could not sit back and do nothing as he got bigger, prepared to enter his teenage years and became more violent. So, what could we as an organization do? How could we help him learn, grow and not end up in prison? At the end of the conversation, solutions revolved around working more closely with the DD system (which many felt was coddling him) and supporting the family to keep them safe.

The other camp in the room was very vocal from the beginning of the talk. One coordinator in particular wanted to know why the youth authority was not called during this last attack. He felt strongly the only way to hold the child accountable and keep people safe was to get the police involved. If the child needed to be locked up in the juvenile system, then so be it. Why should this child, growing into an adolescent, be able to assault people and be protected from his behaviors? Age shouldn’t be a factor in the decision. If you commit a crime and hurt people, you go to jail—period! Ethically, we could not allow one person to get away with breaking laws and creating an unsafe environment wherever he went. We have a responsibility to keep dangerous people out of the public sphere. The solution from these members was the police should be called, charges should be pressed every time and he should be prosecuted.

A Child. A Criminal.

This meeting brought up the dichotomy I have often felt working in criminal justice, as well as, social services: when should a child be charged with a crime and what should the consequences be? Historically, I have felt children are charged at too young of an age for the consequence to be effective. If a child’s brain development does not support the cause/effect learning the justice system aims for, what is the purpose? Strict punishment? How can we as a society support just hurting people back when they hurt others? I also believe the juvenile justice system is lacking in its ability to offer supportive services. This is due to funding, current philosophy and a variety of reasons, but if our goal is to put a child in the system to get help and that help isn’t available, they gain the entire negative experience (learning more bad behaviors, being isolated, labeling, etc) and none of the positives. We create a “worse” child than before. I believed children should be treated like children and we as a society needed to support them with social services outside the justice setting.

As I’ve grown as a criminologist, I’ve changed my views a bit. The biggest change is in my belief our mental health system offered more to children than the juvenile justice system did. I no longer believe that having seen too many children and their families failed. The resources I believed existed often don’t. So, when a child is assaultive, it’s unrealistic to believe the mental health system will jump in, offer wrap-around supports and help the family and child with therapeutic resources. And without these services, along with not holding the child criminally accountable, the child learns assaultive behavior is okay and will go unpunished. This is not the lesson or the kind of person we want walking among us.

So, many questions remain: What can we do? What should criminal justice professionals strive to do to keep violent children from hurting others? Can they be supported and change their behaviors? How can we help facilitate that? How do different jurisdictions and disciplines work together for a common goal? Are these children hopeless? What about trauma? How does this play in how we help and how we avoid inflicting more damage? 

In my next two columns, I’ll explore, in depth, the two sides of the mental health versus juvenile justice argument looking at what’s working, what’s not working and what needs to be done. Until we find solutions, we need to continue dialoging on individual situations and doing the best we can.


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About The Author:

Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. Her credits include Law Enforcement Technology, Police, Law and Order, Police Times, Beyond the Badge, Michigan State Trooper, Michigan Snowmobiler Magazine and Chief of Police. She writes two columns a month for Michelle worked for the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for almost eight years. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. Currently, Michelle works as the Administrative Coordinator at Jasper Mountain a residential psychiatric facility for children. In her spare time, she enjoys being the fundraising coordinator for the Lane Area Ferret Shelter & Rescue, playing her bass, working on her young adult novel Desert Ice and raising her two sons in a small town in Oregon.