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Violent Children: A Juvenile Justice Perspective

In my October column, I addressed the issue of mental health versus juvenile justice in reference to violent children. This column looked at the what mental health professionals believed was working in their field, what was not working and how they could work better with juvenile justice professionals. In this column, those who work in juvenile justice address the same questions. First, here’s a brief history of the American Juvenile Justice System and an overview of what the current mission is.


The common law of England played a large role in the establishment of laws and the justice system in the United States. In common law, a criminal act was clearly defined. To hold someone accountable for a crime, essentially to punish them under our justice system, the person must have the intent to commit a crime and must commit an unlawful act. Under the first component, a line was drawn between those who fully understood one’s actions and those who did not. Without full understanding, a crime could not be committed. This definition allowed the budding American legal system to differentiate between adult and juvenile offenders recognizing the need to determine if a person understood the difference between right and wrong.

In 1899, the first juvenile court was established in Cook County (IL). Within 25 years, most states had set up a juvenile court system. The main purpose of these courts was rehabilitation rather than punishment. Juvenile courts function under the legal doctrine of parens patriae (parent of the country) meaning the state is tasked with acting as the guardian and in the best interest for those in its care.


A quick look at the mission of most juvenile justice agencies throughout the U.S. shows the original purpose of the juvenile system is alive and well. Most incorporate the need to keep the public safe, hold juveniles accountable and at the same time offer services and support to juveniles. Here are some examples:

(Indent) Maintaining public safety while providing rehabilitative services to the state’s most violent and chronic juvenile offenders (Texas Youth Commission)

Administer justice through the comprehensive delivery of service to children and families, victims of crime and the community so that: children reach their full potential; victims of crime are restored; and families and the community function in the best interest of children (The Judicial Branch of Arizona, Maricopa County, Juvenile Court)

To protect the public through a balanced approach of accountability and comprehensive services that prevent and reduce delinquency through partnerships with families, schools, communities, law enforcement, and others, while providing opportunities for delinquent youth to become responsible and productive citizens (Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice)

What Works

So, in light of the history and mission of the juvenile justice system, it appears professionals are tasked with recognizing the difference between adult and juvenile offenders, maintaining public safety, holding juveniles accountable for their actions and providing opportunities for rehabilitation. Although many outside juvenile justice see the system as purely retributive, punishment-driven, this doesn’t appear to be an accurate statement of the system as a whole. Tasked with handling the most violent of juvenile offenders, justice professionals must balance the needs of the community with the needs of the child. Like mental health professionals, juvenile justice professionals state the most important element in helping these children is recognizing mental health issues play a large role in their behavior. Currently, this is a component working in the juvenile justice system.

“An overall process is identifying juveniles and their mental health issues when they come into the system,” states Acting Administrator, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Jeff Slowikowski. “That is a significant step in the last 20 years. Identifying they have one or more issues and identifying what they are so the treatment can be targeted towards their specific needs.” In the last 20 years, there has been an increase in the types of services offered to juveniles in justice facilities. Administrators now work under performance-based standards that require correctional facilities to have a certain ratio of mental health professionals on their staff.

Several programs that have show positive success are Models for Change, Safe Start and Defending Childhood. These programs rely on coordination and integration of services. They are preventative in nature, recognize exposure to violence creates and trauma in children and develop approaches, techniques and methods to reduce the effect of trauma including trauma-based behaviors which often land juveniles at the doors of the system. “They see violence in the home, in their schools or in the street,” explains Slowikowski. “We have to address that. Allowing that trauma to go untreated causes juvenile violence and delinquency issues as they get older. We’ve been working with hospitals and law enforcement and other professionals to look at how we can identify those kids and provide appropriate services in the community.”   

What is Not Working

Although the overarching mission of juvenile justice is to provide accountability and rehabilitation, there are still areas where facilities and programs are based in punishment. Due to funding or an inappropriate mentality, some programs still have limited resources for identifying and treating mental health. “What is not working is not addressing the issues,” says Slowikowski. “When you know the history is that youth that come into the juvenile justice system and those who end up in confinement, 75-percent have some mental health issues. So, to not identify and provide treatment is disastrous. Those who go through the system untreated come out worse.”

Working Together

Programs need to increase and mental health professionals and juvenile justice professionals need to continue to work together for a common goal, Juvenile justice hopes mental health will assist them by providing good assessment tools. “Strong assessment instruments that can really identify the mental health needs of the youth brought into the centers would be something that would be promoted,” states Slowikowski. Juvenile justice centers need to seek out and use those assessments as well.

Another area of coordination and cooperation would be in steps to return a juvenile offender to the community. “Reentry and reintegration treatment needs to continue,” Slowikowski explains. “Mental health doesn’t go away when you leave the juvenile justice system.” Programs need to address the offender’s mental health needs and the environmental and relational factors a child is returning to. 

“Bottom line is we need to recognize most kids that are entering have some underlying mental health issues,” states Slowikowski. “In that while their acts have brought them into the juvenile justice system, accountability can’t be ignored. We need to develop and improve. We need to recognize mental health issues need to be addressed whether they are in a secure environment or on the outside.” Like the mental health professionals state, those working with children, even the most violent, must cooperate and continue to play the role of guardian and protector, not only of the community, but of the child as well.


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Michelle Perin worked as a police telecommunications operator with the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for eight years. She has an M.S. in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University and writes full-time from Eugene, Oregon. For more information, visit