Violent Children: A Juvenile Justice Perspective

Juvenile Justice professionals work with some of the most violent children. Most with serious mental health issues. What is working in the system, what is not and how can juvenile justice work with mental health to offer the best care for these children?

“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

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