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What Research About Children’s Brains & Trauma Tells Us About the Need to Invest Early

March 22nd, 2016 by witnessla


This essay was adapted from oral remarks given by Wendy Smith during a Congressional roundtable sponsored by the National Foster Youth Institute and the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth in February. Smith is an associate dean at the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work.

KIDS & TRAUMA: FIGURING OUT WHEN TO INTERFERE

by Wendy Smith

Advocates, professionals, legislators, families, caregivers and all those who interact with the child welfare system grapple with the question of when and how resources should be invested at local, state, and national levels, to most effectively help children and families who may be touched by the foster care system.

If we are serious about helping children, we must ask ourselves with greater urgency: At what point should we begin to pay attention to families who are at risk?

The vital importance of the early years of children’s lives in setting the stage for their futures cannot be overstated.

To understand why foster care, as critical as it is in some instances, is a less effective intervention than assistance in advance of removing children from their homes, it will help to know something about stress, trauma and brain development. Some of what I will describe we know and have known for a long time, and some we didn’t really know until quite recently, but all has important implications for how we approach child welfare decisions and policies.

Some 415,000 children are in foster care in the U.S. on any given day. As a nation, we know and believe that the safety of children who are determined to be at imminent risk of neglect or physical, sexual or emotional abuse, and for whom remaining in their homes poses immediate danger must be protected. Before that moment when a child is taken from her home and family, a great deal has already happened to all of the people in the family. And a great deal happens afterward as well.

In the past 10 years, there has been a veritable explosion of research in brain development, trauma and its long-term effects, and the importance of early attachments.

This new knowledge is crucial to the strengthening of families and the protection of children’s development and well-being. I want to highlight each of these, but first, let me share some sobering statistics:

Children in foster care are more likely than other children to exhibit high levels of behavioral and emotional problems. They are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school, to have received mental health services, and to have a limiting physical, learning or mental health condition. In one study, 60 percent of children aged two months to two years in foster care were at high risk for a developmental delay.

Things do not improve for youth who age out of care (those who graduate from foster care without being reunited with their families or adopted): While many are highly resilient, too many have fared poorly. In one study, 38 percent had emotional problems, half had used illegal drugs and a quarter were involved with the criminal justice system.

Only 48 percent had graduated high school at the time of discharge, compared with 81 percent of their peers. Only 13 percent of foster youth enroll in college (compared with 78 percent of high-income peers, and 55 percent of low-income peers), and only 2-4 percent of foster youth graduate (compared with 41 percent in the U.S.). From 41 to 60 percent of those who aged out were unemployed, and up to half had received public assistance.

Most critically, nearly 40 percent of foster youth are homeless within 18 months of discharge from foster care. As adults, those who spent long periods in multiple foster care homes were more likely to be unemployed, homeless, incarcerated, become early parents, to be dependent on financial assistance and to have chronic health conditions.

These dismal outcomes for children in our care shame us all. Why should these outcomes be so dire, and the costs to young lives, and to society, so great?


BRAIN DEVELOPMENT AND THE EFFECTS OF TOXIC STRESS

Let us consider some of what recent research on brain development, attachment, and the effects of toxic stress and trauma tells us.

Early experiences profoundly affect the development of brain architecture, the foundation for future learning, behavior and health. The architecture of the brain is constructed over time, beginning before birth and continuing into adulthood.

It becomes increasingly complex over time, with brain cells (or neurons) proliferating most rapidly during the first few years, and another period of important changes during adolescence. The majority of brain development occurs in the first five years; however, throughout life, new connections continue to occur, and connections that are not used are pruned away.

Brain development is experience dependent; our genes interact with our experiences to shape our brains. Genes provide a kind of blueprint of circuits, but experience and use determine whether certain capabilities or potentials will emerge and be firmly established or die away. Experiences of both positive and negative kinds have this shaping potential.

So, for example, exposure to certain types of stimuli–intellectual, athletic, musical–might set the stage for intellectual or athletic potentials to be realized—which is why we often see succeeding generations of exceptionally talented individuals in one family.

In the same way, for infants who are rarely spoken or sung to, language development will be negatively impacted. The occurrence of abuse or neglect during the first three years can produce changes to important parts of the brain, sometimes leading to learning difficulties, attention deficits, problems in self-regulation and self-control.

Environment and relationships play an important role: Interaction with parents or other important adults is the medium or vehicle through which the infant or young child experiences the world and him or herself.

Responsive caregiving is the key ingredient that drives optimal brain development. When caregiver responses are unreliable, inappropriate or absent, the child’s brain architecture cannot develop as expected, and this can lead to disparities in learning or behavior.

When parents’ mental health is compromised, when the need to find shelter or addiction to drugs precludes a parent from attending to a child’s needs or distress, the child is not soothed, and therefore cannot fully develop the capacity for self-soothing or self-regulation. The lack of ability to self-regulate can set the stage for all kinds of problems, including the use of substances to self-soothe.


CHILDREN’S BRAINS CAN ALSO CHANGE FOR THE BETTER

Our brains have neurobiological plasticity, giving us the capacity to change throughout life in response to new opportunities, both positive and negative. The message here is that what happens before, during, and after engagement with the child welfare system can make profound differences to the ongoing development of children and youth.

Stress, toxic stress and trauma frequently, if not always, play a part in the lives of children and families who come to the attention of child welfare systems. Stress results when demands—either physical or psychological—exceed our coping resources. It is a normal part of human existence, and an effective stress response is necessary in the face of daily challenges. It becomes a problem when stress is excessive or when it is not followed by a period of rest and recovery.

There are three basic categories of stress: positive (brief increases in heart rate and mild elevation of stress hormones); tolerable (serious, temporary stress responses, buffered by supportive relationships); and toxic (prolonged activation of stress response systems in the absence of protective relationships).

An example of toxic stress might be a homeless teen single mother with a colicky infant. These compound stressors over days or weeks, in the absence of a supportive other, might overwhelm the coping capacities of any young person; imagine if layered beneath the current difficult situation are experiences of childhood trauma.

The effects of early childhood abuse on the stress response system have been shown to continue into later life. Research suggests that many of the leading health and social problems have common origins in the enduring consequences of abuse and related negative experiences during childhood.

The ACE (adverse childhood experiences) study revealed the strong connections between trauma in childhood, cognitive and social problems, adoption of health risk behaviors, disease, disability and social problems, and, in fact, premature death.

Attachment plays an important role: The parent or caregiver mediates stress for the child. On a very basic level, think of an infant who is frightened and dysregulated by a loud noise. Ideally, a responsive adult picks up the child, providing reassuring contact and soothing, and the infant regains equilibrium.

Repeated cycles of equilibrium, disturbance and timely repair are what help us develop the ability to tolerate stress. If there is no responsive caregiver to act as a psychobiological regulator, the stress response remains in high gear, and the infant does not internalize the capacity to self-soothe. These are often the children who can’t manage themselves on the school yard, seeing threats where there aren’t any, getting into fights, or breaking down when frustrated.

Trauma is a particular version of toxic stress: high-risk events or situations in which one’s physical or psychological integrity is threatened (school shooting, gang violence, natural disaster, sudden or violent loss of loved one, physical or sexual assault). The child feels intense fear, helplessness and horror. Serious incidents of child abuse or neglect can be composed of one or more trauma events. In situations of abuse or severe neglect, the adult who is the abuser or psychologically unavailable cannot be turned to as a source of comfort, soothing and recovery.

Trauma can be acute or chronic. Chronic trauma is more likely to lead to negative developmental outcomes. Reactions to traumatic events vary based on a child’s coping responses and on the relationship between the child and perpetrator. The neurobiological response to trauma results in increased adrenaline levels and increased cortisol, the stress hormone.


COUNTERACTING THE EFFECTS OF CHRONIC ABUSE

Chronic abuse leads to overdevelopment of the stress response system (and reduced levels of pleasurable hormones), preparing a child to cope with negative environments, rather than having the expectations of a good experience with others. The child’s attention is focused on detecting threats. In the classroom, a child might experience a teacher’s criticism or correction as a threat to be defended against, or be unable to take in the lesson because he or she is caught up in worrying about a possible negative reaction from the teacher or other children. High levels of stress hormones also affect memory, and can interfere with learning in this way as well.

Foster children with histories of chronic abuse may have found themselves, in one placement after another, unable to make use of the best efforts of concerned caregivers because they have learned at the biological level to remain on alert.

What does all of this have to do with foster care? How can we best make use of what we now know about stress, trauma and attachment?

I would suggest that we can do much more to shore up families before they come to the point where children are in danger and must be removed, and that by doing so, we can substantially improve the lives of children and families at the same time that we decrease the injuries to them and the ultimate costs to society of our having to take over the role of parent for so many children.

We now know, as we didn’t before, that experience and environment have profound effects, not only on social and psychological behavior, but at the biological level. Now we know that improving the quality of experience and family environments early in a child’s life will positively affect every domain of functioning.

We all know, from having been children, or having our own, how frightening it might be when a parent is impaired or absent, or if you couldn’t go home because the rent hadn’t been paid. You might cling all the more tightly to your parent.

Many of the families of children who come into care are struggling with poverty, homelessness, health or mental health problems, addiction, or incarceration. The entry into care, while a lifesaver for some families or children, is for most a traumatic disruption of primary relationships, bringing the loss of parental figures, siblings, home, school—in short, all that is familiar or predictable.


FAMILIES AT RISK NEED HELP BEFORE CHILDREN ARE IN DANGER

So, layered atop the underlying problems, which may or may not be addressed, is a series of additional losses, stressors and problems. Families at risk can benefit from services that address these problems before children are in danger.

Our investments have typically been greater at the back end—trying to ensure that foster care is as good as it can be—and that is important, of course. But even if/when foster care is at its best, strengthening that family in advance of the extreme step of removal of a child sets the stage for more optimal development of the brain, and of the person.

When a child does not have to be occupied with managing or recovering from the trauma of maltreatment or removal, that child is much more likely to be healthy, to be able to learn and to grow into a successful member of society.


This story originally appeared in the Chronicle of Social Change

Posted in Trauma | No Comments »

Are LA’s Locked Up & Traumatized Girls Getting the Help They Need?

March 11th, 2016 by witnessla


THE CHALLENGE OF HEALING LA COUNTY’S TRAUMATIZED GIRLS

Incarcerated girls are more traumatized than boys, and less likely to get adequate treatment

by Xin Li and Phillomina Wong


Moriah, then 14, woke up to burns on her body one night along with physical evidence that she had been raped. She had been invited to a party the night before by someone she considered a friend. (We are just using Moriah’s first name to protect her privacy.)

She eventually came to realize that she had almost been looped into a human trafficking scheme. This event, among many other traumatic events, affected Moriah mentally, physically and emotionally.

“I just felt neglected,” Moriah said of her childhood.

When she was growing up her father was in and out of prison, and she turned to other kids in her neighborhood for comfort. She says she felt like she had no protection and felt lost. While she was never officially in a gang, she did hang around friends who were gang members when growing up in Fullerton, California. Many of those neighborhood friends had problems of their own.

With them Moriah started using drugs and soon struggled with addiction, she said. In high school she got hooked on methamphetamines. On one occasion, when she and her friend were trying to come up with money for drugs, they decided to steal a car.

Two days later, she was arrested for grand theft auto and spent eight months in a juvenile corrections facility. After getting out, Moriah was determined to turn her life around, but soon she started using again. She became friends with gang members and started stealing cars again for drug money. When she was 17, she was sentenced to Los Padrinos and then Camp Scott.

Girls like Moriah who experience high degrees of trauma are statistically more likely to act out than kids with fewer childhood traumas. As a result, they are also far more likely to wind up in the juvenile justice system, according to a growing body of research.

When girls come in contact with the justice system, however, new reports show it is usually for acts that present little or no threat to public safety, and for behavior that’s largely a reaction to “abuse, violence and deprivation.”

Yet, while girls are disproportionately pulled into the system, new juvenile justice reforms rarely focus on the specific needs of troubled girls or on the underlying reasons they landed in the justice system in the first place.

For example, when Moriah recalls her experience at Camp Scott, what stands out to her the most from the group counseling sessions she was encouraged to attend was how many girls in the camp revealed they had been sexually abused, or were in camp for being sexually trafficked, or both.

“I thought it was really crazy,” she said. The sex-trafficked teenagers “were basically brainwashed by people who these girls thought were their boyfriends.”


THE ISSUE OF TRAUMA IN THE JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM

The number of girls in the U.S. juvenile justice system has been rising steadily in the last decade. Trauma is now increasingly being recognized as a driving factor for pushing girls into the system.

According to a study by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), youth in the juvenile justice system have been exposed to significantly higher rates of traumatic childhood events than youth with no contact with the justice system, with rates of trauma exposure ranging from 70 to 96 percent.

The NCTSN study also shows that girls in the justice system have experienced even higher rates of victimization than their male peers.

Nationally, more than one-third of girls in the system have a history of sexual abuse, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Similarly, a 2014 study of 64,329 kids involved in the justice system in Florida found that 31 percent of the girls surveyed reported having been sexually abused, 41 percent reported physical abuse, and 84 percent reported family violence—-as opposed to 7 percent, 26 percent, and 81 percent for boys in those same categories.

There are no definitive statistics showing the degree to which girls in the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles have experienced high degrees of trauma.

But a unique program called the Girls Health Screen, which has been running as a pilot program in one of LA’s juvenile probation camps for girls, reports that one-third of the girls tested report “urgent health needs” such as a recent history of sexual assault, a chronic sense of hopelessness and recent suicidal thoughts and actions.

The Los Angeles County Probation system as a whole is making some effort to include trauma-informed programs in its juvenile camps — both the boys’ camps, and the two facilities catering solely to girls. Probation officials hope that a brand-new boys camp facility due to open next year, Camp Kilpatrick, will provide a model of therapeutic and rehabilitative programing.

However, a prominent report released last year by the National Women’s Law Center suggests that, both nationally and locally, the mental and emotional health concerns specific to females are largely ignored by juvenile justice systems — including LA’s system. And girls suffer as a consequence.

Still, the LA-based Girls Health Screen is one promising new program that many local advocates hope will make a difference in outcomes for the county’s justice-involved girls.


THE VALUE OF SCREENING

The Girls Health Screen (GHS) is a gender-responsive medical health screen that assesses the physical and emotional health needs of girls entering juvenile justice facilities. It was developed by the Girls Health and Justice Institute and its founder Leslie Acoca.

The GHS, given on a laptop, requires girls in camp to respond to 117 questions that cover multiple areas of their lives. According to Acoca, the GHS is designed to be non-intimidating. The questions are worded simply, and require only Yes/No answers that the girls self-report. Even the look of the test, which includes inviting graphics, is designed to prevent an institutional appearance. Because of the test’s design and the way it is administered, said Acoca, girls are able to share their experiences privately, without feeling that they are being judged. Even the act of simply taking the GHS has its own therapeutic effect, she said.

Since 2012, Acoca said, approximately 400 girls at Camp Scudder, the second of LA County Probation’s two camps for girls, have been given the health screen. But the GHS has yet to move beyond the pilot stage in LA, due to bureaucratic roadblocks and lack of funding, she said. All that is due to change this year thanks to a much-needed $20,000 cash infusion that LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl has managed to shake free from the county’s probation department.

“We are hoping the $20,000 will allow the program to roll out in all the juvenile halls in LA,” said Kuehl, who is one of the program’s strong supporters. The idea, she said, is that the information will connect girls to programs and health services they need while in camp or in juvenile hall, and that the information, while private, will also follow those same girls as they return to their communities, so that they can also be connected to needed programs when they come out of lock-up.

“The ETA for the Girls Health Screen to be ready to screen every incarcerated girl in LA is June/July of 2016,” Acoca said.


GIRLS AND GANGS: CAMP TO COMMUNITY

When Moriah was at Camp Scott, she said there were a number of programs that helped her work through her emotional issues, including writing workshops and counseling groups. One of the programs she said influenced her the most was run by an organization called Girls and Gangs.

“I just loved the support,” Moriah said. “The impression [the Girls and Gangs staff] gave me was that they genuinely cared.”

Girls and Gangs provides rehabilitation and transition services for girls who become involved in the juvenile justice system. Their model, which operates under the nonprofit umbrella of the Youth Policy Institute, focuses on pairing girls with mentors starting from their stay at the probation camps all the way through re-entry into their community. According to the Girls and Gang staff, matching each girl with a caring adult makes the program effective and positive for young women transitioning from camp to home.

Moriah was paired with mentor Vanessa Gutierrez while she was still in camp. Then, after Moriah left Camp Scott, she explained, Gutierrez helped her with getting clothes and generally provided support.

“I just got so much support from her and she did so much for me. I didn’t really know why,” Moriah said.

According to Ana Aguirre, program director of Youth Policy Institute’s YouthSource & Education Department, Girls and Gangs works because it encourages girls to share their painful experiences in a safe place where they don’t feel judged.

“They want to be heard. They want to express how they feel,” Aguirre said. “They’re carrying a lot of weight,” yet they often don’t understand the emotional weight they carry. “They might not understand that it’s trauma” they are dealing with, “but we’re able to identify that this was a traumatic experience that has shaped who [they] are.”

The next step in helping the girls heal, Aguirre said, is to ask them, “How can we use this to make you grow and make you stronger?”

Belinda Walker, who serves on the board for Girls and Gangs, said boys in the juvenile justice system have a high degree of trauma too.

Yet, in her observations about the nature of girls’ trauma, Walker echoed what Moriah and Acoca had described. “If you were to drop into any girls’ probation camp,” she said, “you would find that 70 to 90 percent of those girls have been sexually abused in their early adolescent years by trusted adults. In the conversations I have had with probation officers, they’ve said that every girl [they work with] has experienced some form of trauma or abuse. It can be emotional, physical or sexual.”


THE BROADER VIEW

Discussions surrounding trauma and trauma-informed practices are relatively recent, according to Dr. Marleen Wong, the associate dean for field education at the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California, and a nationally known expert in the field of psychological trauma and recovery.

All service sectors have begun looking at this issue of trauma and how to factor it into their services, she said.

“You can look at the national scene and see the Department of Labor talking about traumatized environments. How do you create a trauma-informed workplace? U.S. Department of Education is talking about trauma-informed schools,” Wong said. “Health and Human Services is talking about trauma-informed services. This is how our research is coming into its own, forming the foundation and the basis for thinking about ways to change the way we provide health and human services.”

A landmark legal settlement for which Wong served as the subject matter expert is helping to precipitate one of the most significant changes to how schools treat trauma.

In May 2014, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the Compton Unified School District by Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm, and Irell & Manella LLP. The suit was filed on behalf of five students and three teachers, charging that the school system had not properly educated students who have experienced repeated trauma and violence. Their argument was based on research showing that exposure to trauma and repeated violence harm a child’s abilities to learn and function in school properly.

(WLA wrote about the lawsuit here.)

“All of the studies show that the kids with PTSD can’t concentrate because they have flashbacks, they think constantly about their safety, they never feel safe, they’re always anxious,” Wong said. “It’s generalized anxiety, even when they’re not in a dangerous situation.”

In October 2015, U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald ruled that students who experience traumatic events while growing up in poor, turbulent neighborhoods could be considered disabled. (However, this does not mean any exposure to trauma can guarantee a child will have a disability and be afforded the protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act.)

The settlement sought mandatory trauma-informed training for teachers, adequate mental health and counseling services, and classes teaching students how to cope with anxiety and their emotions.

According to Wong, looking at how trauma affects children is a way to address why some schools may have huge dropout rates and how those rates factor into the school-to-prison pipeline.

“It’s time for us to step up in the right way,” Wong said.


A PATH TO HEALING NEEDED

On Nov. 3, 2015, the National Crittenton Foundation published a toolkit to help identify children’s exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

Crittenton’s mission is to help girls and young women affected by violence and adversity become stronger, healthier and more engaged. The foundation has published a series of studies and reports relating to girls and trauma (the most recent in September 2015).

They found that girls and young women in the justice system had disproportionately high ACE scores, but were often marginalized and overlooked by that same system. The consensus is that young girls should not be given the same treatment as boys if they are to successfully heal from emotionally toxic experiences of their childhood and adolescence, according to Crittenton.

As for the Girls Health Screen, once Leslie Acoca gets the GHS to all the girls entering LA County’s juvenile facilities, she intends to take it nationwide.

Supervisor Kuehl said she is very aware that LA’s juvenile facilities are not doing all that is needed for girls.

“One of the interesting things I heard from women I’ve spoken to who’d been released from prison, who had also been in juvenile camps, and then had offended again as adults,” Kuehl said, “they said there were much better programs in prison for women than they ever had in camps. So they felt like they had a better chance to turn their lives around in prison. That really told me that we’re not seeing a lot of what is possible to really help our girls.”

Accoca went still further. “It’s impossible to do trauma care if you don’t know what traumas the girls have experienced,” she said. “With the level of injury we see with incarcerated girls, both emotional and physical, it is immoral to do anything less than identify those injuries so we can address them.”

Nevertheless, for Moriah, getting some of the proper care and guidance she needed through Girls and Gangs and her own mentor has helped her move forward. She is currently working full time and has plans to go back to school. She is also an ambassador to the Road to Success Academy at Camp Scott.

“A lot of girls got the same extended hand, but I grabbed it,” Moriah said. “You could have all the same things but if you’re not ready, it’s not going to happen.”

Moriah has come to realize that admitting the effects of trauma is not easy. Now that she has taken her own concrete steps into a better future, Moriah’s advice to girls is this: “Never quit on yourself. Your past does not define you.”



This story by Xin Li and Phillomina Wong is the third in a series by reporters from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. The series is part of a collaboration between WitnessLA and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.


The photo of Leslie Acoca is by Jenny Gold/Kaiser Health Network

Posted in Probation, Trauma | 4 Comments »

Report Recommends Continuing Effective Women’s Diversion Court in LA

September 1st, 2015 by Taylor Walker

PUBLIC HEALTH DEPT. SAYS RENEW FUNDING FOR WOMEN’S RE-ENTRY COURT, WHICH LOWERS RECIDIVISM AND SAVES LA MONEY

An important LA County diversion program, the Second Chance Women’s Reentry Court (WRC), is slated to be defunded in December 2015, after receiving a six-month extension in June.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has conducted an assessment on whether to keep the program funded past its scheduled end-date in December.

After running the numbers, the Department of Public Health recommends extending the program, which according to DPH, saves the county money, keeps women out of lock-up, and helps women build better lives for themselves and their families. (We at WLA agree, and hope that the program will be saved.)


HOW THE WOMEN’S RE-ENTRY COURT WORKS

The program, which has helped more than 300 women since its inception, is a multi-agency effort between the District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, Department of Probation, LA County Superior Court, California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, County Criminal Justice Coordination Committee, and the Department of Public Health’s Substance Abuse and Prevention Control Program.

By participating in the WRC, women charged with non-serious felonies or probation violations take part in at least a six-month residential program and then up to a year of outpatient care instead of serving a jail sentence. The alternative court program relies on evidence-based, trauma-informed, and gender-specific strategies to treat women’s underlying issues, rather than punish alleged offenses.

Women in the program receive mental health services and substance abuse treatment, as well as help with housing and employment and family reunification services, when needed.


THE FINDINGS

In the three years after graduating from the program in 2011-2012, 18% of WRC participants had come back into contact with the criminal justice system, compared with a recidivism rate of nearly 50% for women released from CA prisons in 2008-2009.

The rate of homelessness was cut in half for women coming out of the court program than when they were admitted. Women also built better relationships with their families and kids, and had significantly higher rates of employment and school enrollment.

The assessment also found that women who received the gender-specific treatment were one-fifth as likely to exhibit signs of PTSD a year after the end of the program, as compared with women who did not receive gender-specific help.

“Women constitute the fastest-growing segment of people in U.S. jails and prisons,” said LA County’s Interim Health Officer Jeffrey Gunzenhauser. “Women in the criminal justice system often suffer from mental health problems, chronic drug and alcohol addictions, and trauma histories, and are more likely than men to be the primary caretaker of children prior to incarceration.”


THE RECOMMENDATIONS

Besides extending the program, the Public Health Department also recommends boosting the number of programs like WRC that serve women with co-occurring substance abuse and mental health issues.

The assessment also calls for increased staff numbers to provide more help for women transitioning between residential and outpatient treatment through WRC, and for those graduating from the WRC.


UPDATE ON YESTERDAY’S POST ABOUT TODAY’S RE-VOTE ON THE LA COUNTY JAIL PLAN

Be sure to check our updated version of last night’s story.

Posted in Courts, PTSD, Reentry, Rehabilitation, Trauma, women's issues | No Comments »

Trauma Lawsuit Against Compton School District, Drugging Foster Kids, the Brown Act-violating Jail Vote, and California’s New Resident Wolves

August 21st, 2015 by Taylor Walker

FIRST HEARING LANDMARK LAWSUIT AGAINST COMPTON SCHOOL DISTRICT OVER PUNISHING TRAUMATIZED KIDS INSTEAD OF HELPING THEM

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald heard arguments in a potentially precedent-setting suit against Compton Unified School District for failing to help severely traumatized kids struggling with learning.

The lawsuit filed by Public Counsel and Irell & Manella LLP in May, alleges that Compton schools, instead of treating trauma as a disability, respond to traumatized kids by suspending, expelling, and sending them to different schools. The lawsuit on behalf of eight Compton students alleges these practices are in violation of federal law.

If Judge Fitzgerald grants the injunction, the school district would have to provide training for teachers, mental health services for students, and employ conflict-resolution as a first line of action before considering suspension.

A decision in favor of the young plaintiffs could also have a ripple effect on schools across the country.

Compton Unified’s attorney, David Huff, argues that the suit could have the effect giving all of Compton’s students a disability designation just because of where they live.

(Go here for WLA’s previous reporting on this lawsuit.)

NPR’s Cory Turner has the story. Here’s a clip:

Susan Ko of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress says exposure to violence can have a profound effect on the brain’s ability to learn.

“That impacts concentration, the ability to just listen to what the teacher is saying, to understand what you’re reading, to remember something that you learned or what the teacher just said,” Ko says.

Not only that, many traumatized students live in a state of constant alarm. Innocent interactions like a bump in the hallway or a request from a teacher can stir anger and bad behavior.

The lawsuit alleges that, in Compton, the schools’ reaction to traumatized students was too often punishment — not help.

“They were repeatedly either sent to another school, expelled or suspended — and this went back to kindergarten,” says Marleen Wong, who teaches at the USC School of Social Work and has spent decades studying kids and trauma. “I think we’re really doing a terrible disservice to these children.”

The suit argues that trauma is a disability and that schools are required — by federal law — to make accommodations for traumatized students, not expel them.

The LA Times’ Stephen Caesar also reported on this issue.


BILL TO CREATE NURSE OVERSIGHT OF FOSTER KIDS’ PSYCHOTROPIC PRESCRIPTIONS LOSES $$$

A California bill would have mandated oversight of the prescribing of psychotropic medications to foster kids, giving current public health nurses power to monitor the kids, and paying for 38 new public health nurses across CA’s 58 counties.

The bill likely would have been a meaningful step forward in addressing a serious breakdown in foster kids’ mental health care, (uncovered in Karen de Sá’s invaluable investigative series for the San Jose Mercury News, “Drugging Our Kids“) that is, until its author Senator Jim Beall had to strip it of nearly all of its power in the hopes of getting it past budget hawks.

Implementation would have cost $5 million in the first year, and up to $10 million per year, thereafter.

Because Sen. Beall cut the funding out of the bill to give it a chance in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, nurse oversight is no longer be mandatory: counties can choose to opt in (or not) and will have to cough up the money if they want to participate.

Unfortunately, according to National Center for Youth Law’s Anna Johnson, “If you want monitoring to happen, you have to mandate it.”

Contra Costa Times’ Josh Richman has the story. Here’s a clip:

“Appropriations committees are usually the highest hurdle you have to jump over … second perhaps only to the governor’s signature,” Beall, D-San Jose, said later Wednesday. “We’re going to get the bill on the governor’s desk.”

Beall’s SB 319 is one of four pending bills inspired by the Bay Area News Group’s investigative series “Drugging Our Kids,” which revealed that nearly 1 in 4 foster care teens takes psychiatric drugs.

The drugs are often used to control behavior, not to treat mental illnesses. Most of those on the drugs are prescribed antipsychotics, a powerful class of medication that have the most harmful side effects.

The bill still would give public health nurses the authority to get foster youth’s medical records from social workers and prescribing doctors, Beall said, even though it won’t be required. Almost all of the state’s largest counties will do so, he predicted, and he can use his seats on the Senate Budget and Appropriations committees to revisit funding for more nurses and perhaps a statewide mandate in next year’s budget talks.

Still, foster-youth advocates were disappointed.

The Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law sponsored SB 319, and center policy analyst Anna Johnson testified on its behalf Wednesday. Afterward, she said the state’s refusal to spend any money on this is especially disappointing because the federal government would pay 75 percent of the bill.

“If you want monitoring to happen, you have to mandate it” as many other states have, she said. Refusing to do so means “we’re happy with passing that cost on to foster children’s bodies” by “taking a big risk that children will continue to not be monitored on these medications, whether they’re medically necessary or not.”


LA COUNTY SUPES’ IMPROPER JAIL PLANS VOTE IS RESCHEDULED, BUT THE BOARD CAN’T TAKE BACK THE BREACH OF PUBLIC TRUST

Last week, LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey sent a letter confronting the Board of Supervisors about violating the Ralph M. Brown Act when they voted on a proposed amendment to a large-scale plan to divert mentally ill from county jails last Tuesday.

Because the board agenda did not mention there would be a discussion or vote on the jail construction, the vote did not honor the public’s guaranteed right to attend and participate in meetings of local government bodies.

The LA Times’ editorial board says that even though the Supes remedied the improper vote by recalendaring it, the move doesn’t do anything to solve the public trust issue the first vote created. Here’s a clip:

Then, without prior notice, they proceeded to discuss and adopt a separate plan to downsize a facility to replace the dungeon-like Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles and to move ahead with construction of a women’s jail in the Antelope Valley. They offered this ludicrous explanation: The proper jail size depended on the number of people they could divert, so the agenda item on diversion programs and funding necessarily provided the public adequate notice that they would also take up and vote on the controversial multibillion-dollar public works projects.

The true reason for trying to shoehorn in the jails vote? It might be that they had just discovered that state officials were serious about a looming deadline to apply for construction funding, and that they were going to miss it because of their inattentiveness; or that properly calendaring the item for a later meeting would interfere with their vacation plans; or that providing legally adequate notice would raise too much of a public ruckus; or all of the above.

Some county officials also reasoned, after the fact, that anyone who cared about jails also cared about diversion, and therefore was already in the room and received their (very short) notice in real time.

But the purpose of public notice requirements isn’t solely to allow people to show up at board meetings to offer comments, especially in a county of 10 million residents. Only a small slice of the public weighs in that way. Others voice their opinions by calling, emailing, organizing, lobbying or arguing in advance of a major decision affecting them — if they know, as the law entitles them to know, when that decision is to be made. And when push comes to shove, taxpayers and other members of the public have every right to know what their elected representatives are doing, whether they plan to weigh in or not.


CALIFORNIA’S NEW WOLF PACK: THE FIRST IN NEARLY A CENTURY

A new pack of gray wolves, called the Shasta Pack by wildlife officials, has appeared in California. The two adult wolves and five pups, captured on a trail camera, are the first resident pack in CA in decades.

In 2011, a lone gray wolf, OR-7, made news as the first wolf in California since 1924 when he crossed the border from Oregon. OR-7 now lives with his pack just over the Oregon border.

Here’s what the CA Department of Fish and Wildlife has to say about the new pack:

Wild wolves historically inhabited California, but were extirpated. Aside from these wolves and the famous wolf OR7 who entered California in December 2011, the last confirmed wolf in the state was here in 1924. OR7 has not been in California for more than a year and is currently the breeding male of the Rogue Pack in southern Oregon.

In June 2014, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to list gray wolves as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act. The gray wolf is also listed as endangered in California, under the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. Gray wolves that enter California are therefore protected by the ESA making it illegal to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect wolves, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct in California.

CDFW is completing a Draft Wolf Management Plan and will release it soon.

LA Observed’s Kevin Roderick who has been following the California wolf saga for years has the story.

Posted in District Attorney, Foster Care, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, mental health, Trauma, wolves | 7 Comments »

Oakland Mentorship Program Offers Safety & Healing to Sexually Exploited Young Women – by Sarah Zahedi

July 30th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


EDITOR’S NOTE:
San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego metropolitan areas are all rated as among of the highest intensity centers for child commercial sex trafficking in the nation. 

Fortunately, California has been a leader in reforming its response to the commercial sexual exploitation of children, treating the young people involved as the victims of crime they are, not lawbreakers to be prosecuted.

Yet, for victims of sex trafficking, recovery can be extremely challenging due to the severity of the emotional and physical abuse, as well as the sexual abuse, they have endured. Fortunately, as California reformed its legal response to sex trafficking victims, community organizations have been emerging to help these young women and men to whom great harm has been done to begin the healing process and then to find ways to thrive.

In the story below, which originally appeared in the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, journalist Sarah Zahedi explores the work of one such program.

IN OAKLAND, SEXUALLY EXPLOITED YOUNG WOMEN FIND HEALING AND HOPE

How a unique mentorship program started by survivors of sexual exploitation gives sexually trafficked girls a safe and loving place to redefine their lives.

by Sarah Zahedi

Through times of trauma and distress, often all a child needs is to be showered with love. It may sound corny, but for the estimated 100,000 children who are sexually exploited per year around the country, it can be transformative.

The Lasting Links Mentorship Program at MISSSEY (Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth), an Oakland, Calif., nonprofit, works to end child exploitation and help victims through the formation of healthy, supportive and loving adult relationships.

“Some of them will even just come in to the drop-in center for a hug. They’ve said that to us,” said executive director Falilah Bilal at MISSSEY.

In Oakland, MISSSEY’s efforts are more than necessary. The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the top three epicenters of human trafficking in the United States along with Los Angeles and San Diego, with 46 percent of all prosecuted human trafficking cases in California coming from the Alameda District Attorney’s office.

“People think that this is a problem that happens to kids ‘over there,’ whether it’s kids from other countries or poor black kids or boys from another place,” said Bilal. “People don’t think that this is an American-bred issue that happens across all class and all gender. This is something confronting and impacting all of us.”

MISSSEY partners with Girls Inc. and the Mentoring Center to match people who wish to volunteer their time to provide advice and emotional support to sexually exploited young women in need.

“The goal of the program is to provide a restorative healthy adult relationship to youth who have experienced disruption and betrayal in adult relationships,” said mentoring and training coordinator Liz Longfellow.

To become a mentor, applicants must attend an information session, fill out an application, be interviewed, participate in a rigorous 20-hour training program and go through a criminal background check. From there, the match process can take a while, depending on what youth want from a mentor. MISSSEY works to have several mentors on hand so there is an individual mentor who meets the youth’s specific requests as soon as the youth requests a mentor.

Some of the mentors are already connected to the field, therapists or social workers or nurses who have worked with sexually exploited youth in the past. Other mentors are simply people who want to help. The minimum duration of the mentor-mentee relationship is one year.

“It’s a commitment to become a mentor,” Longfellow said. “The process of getting matched with a mentee takes so long because the mentor has to show they will give their time and commitment. If the relationships doesn’t last a year, it’s not going to be as effective for the youth.”

The sense of love and care the young girls can get from a mentor has proven to bring about monumental positive change, especially since many of the relationships last beyond one year, she said.

“The year is a great benchmark but it’s great when it continues on,” Longfellow said. “We’ve had some of the youth come back and say [their mentors] are stuck with them for life. That’s a successful relationship.”

Take Sheila (all clients’ and mentors’ names have been changed), now 18. After being exploited for many years in Oakland, she realized that in order to get out of the life, she needed to move away from the city. She wanted to be far enough away to feel safe, yet be able to visit family and friends every now and again. Her child welfare worker in Alameda County helped her find supported housing in the Antioch/Bay Point area. But when Sheila got there, she felt very alone and disoriented. She didn’t know how to use the bus system to get to the store, let alone to look for a job.

Longfellow matched her with a mentor named Ena who is also a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation. Ena, who has lived in Antioch for many years, was able to show Sheila around. With Ena’s support, Sheila eventually was able to find a job. Ena also helped her decorate her new apartment, which in part involved creating a vision board to give Sheila a daily visual reminder of her dreams and goals. Ena, who was a college student then, knew about many area resources to make school more affordable. She referred Sheila to several people in her support network so that she could feel more encouraged to take college classes and feel more connected to her new community. After many conversations about Sheila’s traumatic history, Ena convinced Sheila to reconnect with a therapist.

“I wouldn’t have been able to make it here without Ena,” Sheila said. “She has helped me so much and I feel really comfortable talking with her and telling her personal stuff about myself. That doesn’t really happen for me. It’s a relief.”


From 2007 to 2014, MISSSEY has served approximately 1,000 girls. And the organization’s services do not stop at the mentorship program. It also offers case management for youth looking to get out of the life of sex trafficking and a foster youth program, funded by Alameda County Social Services to prevent and intervene in child sex work.

MISSSEY was founded by two survivors of commercial sexual exploitation of children along with two allies. It’s staffed by a number of other survivors of sexual exploitation.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Sex trafficking, Trauma | No Comments »

LASD Heroes Find Baby Allegedly Kidnapped by Pimp

July 21st, 2015 by Taylor Walker

LA SHERIFF’S DEPT. MEMBERS FIND AMBER ALERT BABY THROUGH INTER-BUREAU COLLABORATION & A TRAUMA-INFORMED INVESTIGATION

At 6:30a.m., this past Saturday, LA County sheriff’s deputies from the Lancaster station responded to a call that a woman had been kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and tortured near Lake LA in the hi-desert. The 40-year-old victim reportedly ran naked between 1-3 miles, and begged for help from residents in the first house she found.

When the deputies arrived on the scene, they were told that the suspect, an alleged pimp later ID’ed as 34-year-old Brandon Wynn, had also abducted the woman’s 13-month-old daughter. The woman, in an effort to protect her pimp (a symptom of what is called “trauma bonding”), gave the deputies false information about the suspect’s identity and his vehicle, that the officers then used in an Amber Alert.

The Sheriff’s Major Crimes Bureau – Metro Detail received crucial help from the department’s Human Exploitation and Trafficking Unit and the Special Victims Bureau to identify and understand the brutalized victim’s reasons for covering for her pimp.

In a press conference on Monday, LASD Major Crimes Captain Merrill Ladenheim described trauma bonding as an abuser’s isolation and manipulation of a vulnerable victim in order to control them, usually under the pretext of love or companionship. “Those bonds lead us to see, today, the lengths to which a victim will go to to protect her abuser.” said Captain Ladenheim.

Despite the false information, a confidential informant responded to the Amber Alert with valuable tips that helped investigating officers identify Wynn.

At 2:50p.m., patrolling deputies spotted Wynn and his car in Palmdale. During his arrest, Wynn told the officers of a shed where he had left the baby girl.

And by 3:00p.m., Sergeants Steven Owen and Gregory Kelly, and Deputy Daniel Gore, who raced to the identified location, found and rescued the 13-month-old, who had been left alone, strapped into a carseat, and was crying in the empty shed.

The baby has since been released from the Antelope Valley hospital where she was receiving treatment for dehydration, and is now safe and in the custody of the county’s Department of Children and Family Services, and “in good spirits.”

LA County’s historic rainy weekend likely kept the baby alive, until officers found her. If the Antelope Valley had been experiencing its usual triple digit weather, the baby would have almost certainly died in a hot shed.

The mother, described in the LASD press conference as “truly a victim in every facet,” had been severely beaten and was transported to Palmdale Regional Hospital, and will receive wrap-around services for victims of sex-trafficking through the Human Exploitation and Trafficking Unit.

Wynn and a 16-year-old boy who was with him were arrested on attempted murder charges.

“This case really showcases the impact of human trafficking within Los Angeles County,” Ladenheim continued. “And it’s really important to realize that many of these victims are children.”

According to the US Department of Justice the average victim is first trafficked between ages 12 and 14.

Ladenheim stressed the importance of having a “collaborative, victim-centered approach…led by a dedicated multi-jurisdictional force” of law enforcement agencies, social services, and community and faith-based groups.

Posted in children and adolescents, DCFS, Rape, Trauma | 1 Comment »

Finding the Child Welfare Czar….”Overcorrected, Overdirected, and Overpunished” Kids…Dylan Roof and CA Prison Segregation…and More

July 9th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

LA COUNTY SUPERVISORS MAY NAME A CHILD WELFARE CZAR TODAY

The LA County Board of Supervisors held a closed-door meeting Tuesday to interview two candidates to lead the Office of Child Protection, an entity recommended by a Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection convened to jumpstart much-needed reform efforts in the county child welfare system.

The Supes are slated to interview two more candidates today (Thursday), and could possibly issue their final decision today, as well.

Fesia Davenport, who has served as the interim child welfare czar, is reportedly among those being considered for the position.

Holden Slattery has more on the issue in a story for the Chronicle of Social Change. Here’s a clip:

Fesia Davenport, who the board appointed as interim director of the office in February, is a candidate for the position, according to Wendy Garen, president and CEO of the Ralph Parsons Foundation, which was one of 17 foundations to endorse the BRC recommendations in a letter to the Board of Supervisors.

“It’s been a robust process. There are outside candidates,” Garen said. “I do believe that Fesia [Davenport] is a candidate and that her performance to date has been remarkable.”

Garen said she has no knowledge about the other candidates and, due to that, she does not know whether Davenport is the best candidate for the job.

The creation of an Office of Child Protection was the most prominent recommendation to emerge from the Los Angeles County Blue Ribbon on Child Protection’s (BRC) December 2013 interim recommendations and again in its final report in April.

“I hope that the OCP director who the board ultimately hires is a person that is imbued with many of the traits that the child protection commission envisioned initially,” Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, co-chair of the transition team tasked with implementing the BRC recommendations, said in a phone interview Tuesday. “A strong leader with experience in child welfare who is collaborative and imaginative, and not afraid to stand up to the existing institutions.”


TO CHANGE “CHALLENGING” KIDS’ BEHAVIOR – DONT: PUNISH AND REWARD; DO: HELP KIDS UNDERSTAND AND LEARN FROM THEIR ACTIONS

Katherine Reynolds Lewis has an excellent longread for the July/August issue of Mother Jones Magazine about psychologist Ross Greene’s game-changing discipline methods of teaching kids problem-solving skills instead of employing the now largely discredited punishment-reward system developed by B.F. Skinner in the mid-20th century.

The idea is that, punishing children who are acting out, and who are often called “challenging,” only exacerbates kids’ underlying problems and helps to push them through the school-to-prison pipeline. Kids brains have not developed enough to have control over their behavior and emotions, so punishing them, instead of helping them understand the “why” behind their behavior, is extremely counterproductive, according to Greene’s theory.

Here are some clips:

…consequences have consequences. Contemporary psychological studies suggest that, far from resolving children’s behavior problems, these standard disciplinary methods often exacerbate them. They sacrifice long-term goals (student behavior improving for good) for short-term gain—momentary peace in the classroom.

University of Rochester psychologist Ed Deci, for example, found that teachers who aim to control students’ behavior—rather than helping them control it themselves—undermine the very elements that are essential for motivation: autonomy, a sense of competence, and a capacity to relate to others. This, in turn, means they have a harder time learning self-control, an essential skill for long-term success. Stanford University’s Carol Dweck, a developmental and social psychologist, has demonstrated that even rewards—gold stars and the like—can erode children’s motivation and performance by shifting the focus to what the teacher thinks, rather than the intrinsic rewards of learning.

In a 2011 study that tracked nearly 1 million schoolchildren over six years, researchers at Texas A&M University found that kids suspended or expelled for minor offenses—from small-time scuffles to using phones or making out—were three times as likely as their peers to have contact with the juvenile justice system within a year of the punishment. (Black kids were 31 percent more likely than white or Latino kids to be punished for similar rule violations.) Kids with diagnosed behavior problems such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and reactive attachment disorder—in which very young children, often as a result of trauma, are unable to relate appropriately to others—were the most likely to be disciplined.

Which begs the question: Does it make sense to impose the harshest treatments on the most challenging kids? And are we treating chronically misbehaving children as though they don’t want to behave, when in many cases they simply can’t?

That might sound like the kind of question your mom dismissed as making excuses. But it’s actually at the core of some remarkable research that is starting to revolutionize discipline from juvenile jails to elementary schools. Psychologist Ross Greene, who has taught at Harvard and Virginia Tech, has developed a near cult following among parents and educators who deal with challenging children. What Richard Ferber’s sleep-training method meant to parents desperate for an easy bedtime, Greene’s disciplinary method has been for parents of kids with behavior problems, who often pass around copies of his books, The Explosive Child and Lost at School, as though they were holy writ.

His model was honed in children’s psychiatric clinics and battle-tested in state juvenile facilities, and in 2006 it formally made its way into a smattering of public and private schools. The results thus far have been dramatic, with schools reporting drops as great as 80 percent in disciplinary referrals, suspensions, and incidents of peer aggression. “We know if we keep doing what isn’t working for those kids, we lose them,” Greene told me. “Eventually there’s this whole population of kids we refer to as overcorrected, overdirected, and overpunished. Anyone who works with kids who are behaviorally challenging knows these kids: They’ve habituated to punishment.”

Under Greene’s philosophy, you’d no more punish a child for yelling out in class or jumping out of his seat repeatedly than you would if he bombed a spelling test. You’d talk with the kid to figure out the reasons for the outburst (was he worried he would forget what he wanted to say?), then brainstorm alternative strategies for the next time he felt that way. The goal is to get to the root of the problem, not to discipline a kid for the way his brain is wired.

“This approach really captures a couple of the main themes that are appearing in the literature with increasing frequency,” says Russell Skiba, a psychology professor and director of the Equity Project at Indiana University. He explains that focusing on problem solving instead of punishment is now seen as key to successful discipline.

If Greene’s approach is correct, then the educators who continue to argue over the appropriate balance of incentives and consequences may be debating the wrong thing entirely. After all, what good does it do to punish a child who literally hasn’t yet acquired the brain functions required to control his behavior?

Schools and juvenile detention centers are starting to pick up Greene’s methods and are experiencing complete behavior turnarounds:

In 2004, a psychologist from Long Creek Youth Development Center, a correctional center in South Portland, Maine, attended one of Greene’s workshops in Portland and got his bosses to let him try CPS. Rodney Bouffard, then superintendent at the facility, remembers that some guards resisted at first, complaining about “that G-D-hugs-and-kisses approach.” It wasn’t hard to see why: Instead of restraining and isolating a kid who, say, flipped over a desk, staffers were now expected to talk with him about his frustrations. The staff began to ignore curses dropped in a classroom and would speak to the kid later, in private, so as not to challenge him in front of his peers.

But remarkably, the relationships changed. Kids began to see the staff as their allies, and the staff no longer felt like their adversaries. The violent outbursts waned. There were fewer disciplinary write-ups and fewer injuries to kids or staff. And once they got out, the kids were far better at not getting locked up again: Long Creek’s one-year recidivism rate plummeted from 75 percent in 1999 to 33 percent in 2012. “The senior staff that resisted us the most,” Bouffard told me, “would come back to me and say, ‘I wish we had done this sooner. I don’t have the bruises, my muscles aren’t strained from wrestling, and I really feel I accomplished something.’”

Read on…


PERSISTING WHITE SUPREMACY IN CA STATE PRISONS…AND DYLAN ROOF

In an essay for the Marshall Project, James Kilgore, who spent the majority of a six-and-a-half year prison term in California facilities, considers how Charleston church shooter Dylan Roof might be received at a CA prison where inmates have been racially segregated for decades.

Kilgore calls for national dialogue on white supremacy in prisons and urges lawmakers and corrections officials to put an end to their “complicity in reproducing hatred and division” through racially segregated detention facilities.

Here’s a clip:

He would certainly find instant camaraderie with the Peckerwoods, the Skinheads, the Dirty White Boys, the Nazi Low Riders. His admirers, men with handles like Bullet, Beast, Pitbull, and Ghost, would vow to live up to Roof’s example, either by wreaking havoc when they hit the streets or maybe even the very next day in the yard.

Roof’s newfound fan club would be ready to provide him with prison perks — extra Top Ramen, jars of coffee, a bar of Irish Spring. The guards, many with their own Roofish sympathies, would cut him some slack — an extra roll of toilet paper here, a few illicit minutes on the telephone there. If Roof were so inclined, the guards might turn a blind eye to his indulgence in illegal substances, from tobacco to papers of heroin to the carceral Mad Dog 20/20 known as “pruno.”

If Roof played by the convict code, he might quickly rise in the ranks of the white-power structure in the prison yard. Maybe after a few years, he would earn the status of “shot caller,” the highest rank within the racial groups. Then he could order hits on young white boys who defiled the race by playing a game of chess with a black man or offering a Latino a sip of his soda. Like all his white comrades, Roof would use the white showers, the white phones, the white pull-up bars. The yard might spark visions of a segregated utopia for Dylann, a wonderland where everyone was in their right place — separate and unequal.

But white supremacists in prison also live in a world of racial enemies. Fueled by paranoia and buttressed by complicit guards and administrators, Roof would be the target of personalized vengeance attacks. Just like on the streets, he would be constantly looking over his shoulder to fend off real and imagined enemies. In particular, he would realize that in a prison yard, there are plenty of black lifers who have nothing to lose and the muscle power to break him in half, like a dry stick. A warrior who took down Roof would get a hero’s welcome in the torturous isolation blocks at Pelican Bay or Corcoran. All this tension would no doubt make Roof a little uneasy, perhaps force him to remain “suited and booted,” armed with a razor blade in his mouth or a sharpened shank up his rectum.

But even with danger all around him, Roof might find solace in the fact that the prison authorities would not assign any whites and blacks to share a cell and would enable the segregation of day rooms and exercise spaces. This would be a refreshing change of pace for Roof.


WHY WAS POMONA TEEN ACCUSED OF ROBBERY FOUND BLUDGEONED TO DEATH IN HIS CELL, FAMILY ASKS

The parents of a 19-year-old robbery suspect, Rashad Davis, fatally beaten in his jail cell in May, want answers from the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department about why their son was assigned to a cell shared by a mentally unstable cellmate accused of beating a man to death with a baseball bat.

The SB Sheriff’s Dept. has not indicated whether or not Davis was housed with 22-year-old Jeremiah Ajani Bell due to a breakdown in screening protocol, but the department has recently been the subject of several scandals and investigations, including alleged excessive use of force and inadequate mental health treatment for inmates.

The LA Times’ Paloma Esquivel has the story. Here’s a clip:

Posted in CDCR, DCFS, Foster Care, LA County Board of Supervisors, Mental Illness, race, School to Prison Pipeline, Trauma, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | No Comments »

Landmark Lawsuit Filed Against Compton School District for Failing to Help Severely Traumatized Kids Struggling With Learning

May 19th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

On Monday, a one-of-a-kind, and potentially important lawsuit was filed by the public interest law firm, Public Counsel, and by Irell & Manella LLP, in behalf of five student plaintiffs plus three teachers, alleging that the teenagers named, and others with similar experiences who attended schools in the Compton district, “have been denied meaningful access to public education” as a result of the district’s “practices and policies that fail to accommodate the effects of complex trauma.”

“These policies and practices,” the lawsuit alleges, are against federal law and “perpetuate and sometimes create trauma on their own.”

The idea that childhood trauma really, no kidding, affects a kid’s ability to learn, or to sit still in a classroom, to focus on a test, or to respond constructively to criticism by a teacher, or react with moderation to a challenge or bullying by another student, are still only at the barest edge of mainstream acceptance, never mind that, for some years, we’ve had the scientific ability to observe the physical changes that occur in a kid’s brain in response to severe or sustained childhood trauma. Most of our public systems don’t behave as if we know what we know.

The purpose of this lawsuit is to change all that by forcing the hand of at least one school district—namely Compton—and, in so doing, setting a legal precedent that could trigger more change across the county, the state and beyond.


“NUMBER ONE HEALTH PROBLEM”

At a mid morning video conference, four of the plaintiff kids told their stories, (see video above) after which attorneys Mark Rosenbaum, Laura Faer and Katheryn Eidmann, all from Public Counsel explained in more detail what they believed to be the importance of their legal filing

“The number one public health problem in the United States today is the affect of childhood trauma on students’ opportunity to learn.” said Rosenbaum, “The widely known, but little addessed scientific fact of life is that childhood trauma can negatively affect the capacity of any child to learn and to succeed in school.”

Nowhere, Rosenbaum said, is the school-derailing impact greater than in high violence neighborhoods and communities, “where children suffer frequent and severe traumatic episodes that are so stressful that they overwhelm a young persons ability to cope. Unadressed trauma is the enemy of the brain,” he said. All the experts have told us that the surest way to reduct the achievement gap in American between our have and have not communities, is to address childhood trauma in our public schools.”

But that, Rosenbaum and the other attorneys say, is what Compton, and many school districts around the state and the nation—have failed to do.

Rather than “taking reasonable steps to address the needs of students affected by trauma,” the suit claims that CUSD punished and/or excluded the kids who were suffering most in ways that made succeeding in school all but impossible, and all this happened at a time when the kids needed help the most.

One student-plaintiff, Peter P., had a history of being repeatedly abused and watching his junky mother and his siblings badly abused as well. Eventually he and his sibs were removed to the foster care system, where Peter P bounced in and out of homes, and witnessed a frightening amount of street violence. (You can read the details here.)

Peter P became homeless for two months in March and April 2015, when he was 17. During this period, he slept on the roof of the Dominguez High School cafeteria. When his roof sleeping was fully discovered, instead of being offered help or services, he was suspended.

“If we cannot address the causes of extreme childhood trauma,” said Rosenberg, “we can at least address its effects so that all children can learn and achieve their dreams. But schools like those in Compton, he said “too often treat their students as bad children, not students to whom bad things have happened.”


SEEKING REMEDIES

So what, specifically, does the lawsuit hope for in the way of changes?

The attorneys point out that there are “proven models” already adopted by some districts across the country, that have helped both students and teachers “become more resilient in the face of adversity and trauma.”

The models include:

• Adequate mental health and counseling service for the highest need students;
• Trauma-informed training and support for all educators and school staff;
• Teaching children skills to cope with their anxiety and emotions; and
• Implementing positive school discipline and restorative strategies that keep children in school and create a safe and welcoming environment.

“Schools that fail to address the impact of trauma on students are engaging in unlawful discrimination,” said Laura Faer, Public Counsel’s Statewide Education Rights Director. “Trauma is a top predictor of school suspensions, expulsions and school-based referrals to law enforcement. Schools that fail to meet their obligation to become trauma-informed frequently deny student’s meaningful access to education and impermissibly put them on a school to jailhouse track.”

We will keep you posted on the outcome.


Posted in ACEs, Restorative Justice, School to Prison Pipeline, Trauma, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | No Comments »

40,000 Californians Download ACLU App…..Ferguson’s High Priced “Negotiation” With Justice….Chief Charlie Beck Thanks the Troops

May 5th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

APPROXIMATELY 40,000 CALIFORNIANS DOWNLOAD THE NEW ACLU MOBILE JUSTICE APP IN 5 DAYS

Last month a South Gate, California, woman was filming a police action when a Deputy U.S. Marshall saw her, strode over and smashed her phone to the ground.

As of last Thursday, the ACLU of California has an app for that with their new Mobile Justice CA, a free smartphone app that allows people to record video that, at a finger touch, is sent straight to the ACLU—or more specifically to their cloud storage.

The video also stays on your phone so that you retain a copy as well.

It is the transmission that is key, of course, because—as the above video demonstrates—it prevents anyone from deleting the only copy of a recording.

Since MobileJusticeCA was released less than a week ago, the app has been downloaded “around 40,000 times,” said the ACLU’s Peter Bibring when we talked on Monday. Bibring is director of police practices and senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Southern California branch, and one of those most involved with the project. “So we’re calling that successful,” he said.

No kidding.

(By the way, the ACLU of California is made up of the state’s three big regional branches: the ACLU of Southern California, the ACLU of Northern California, and the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties.)

MobileJusticeCA is not the first such application that the ACLU has distributed. The newly launched California app is an improved variation on an app introduced in New York a couple of years ago, when there was a push among activists to document stop-and-frisk incidents. A few other states, like New Jersey, and Oregon, followed suit.

Then California worked with the software developers to make various improvements over the original, said Bibring,.

For instance, unlike the New York version, which only allowed a short recording, the new version allows you to record as long as you want, or at least as long as your battery holds up.

Other improvements in the California incarnation include access—through your phone— to the ACLU’s full library of know your rights material. Plus, there’s a feature that allows someone who is recording a police action to send out an alert that will be seen by others nearby who may then show up to record too.

When I asked Bibring if he was at all concerned with some of the privacy issues that some critics have mentioned since the app was introduced.

“Actually, I’m proud of our privacy policies on this application,” he said.” For example, unless you submit it to us, we don’t collect any kind of information about you. We don’t have your name, or any kind of device ID, or anything else. We just have the video.”

The video exists on the Amazon cloud server, with whom the ACLU has contracted. “And they’re extremely exacting about not collecting access to any personal data.” said Bibring.

In truth, unless the video is flagged by the sender as evidence of possible civil rights violation, ACLU staffers will, in most cases, never look at it, and it will be purged in a few months.

The ACLU is partnering with the Ella Baker Center to do a six month campaign to engage people about ways to promote police accountability in their neighborhoods, said Bibring.

“People unquestionably have the first amendment right to film law enforcement,” he said. “So one of the things we are trying to do with this app is to make sure that people know their rights.”


FERGUSON HIRES 1,335 PER HOUR LAWYER TO FIGHT…ER…NEGOTIATE WITH THW D.O.J.

There’s no question about the fact that Dan K. Webb, 69, is a brilliant attorney. But the fact that Ferguson, MO, has hired one the nation’s highest paid lawyers, in a contract that grants him his full fee for guiding their negotiations with the U.S. Department of Justice, has drawn criticism. In certain pro bono cases, Webb works for a lowered fee. Not this time. His hourly price tag is nearly twice that of the highest paid lawyers—$700 per hour—working in Missouri in the whole of last year.

According to St. Louis Despatch reporters Christine Byers and Stephen Deere, who broke the story after they managed to wrestle a copy of the engagement letter showing the hiring terms away from the Ferguson City Council, which tried very, very hard to keep the letter secret, then reportedly redacted it energetically after they realized they didn’t have a legal leg to stand on in the face of the Dispatch’s Public Records Act request.

Eventually, persistent reporters Byers and Deere got the whole thing which you can read here.

Yet, the most interesting part of the hiring of Webb is not so much that Ferguson, which has been reported to be skating perilously close to bankruptcy, has chosen to pay such an unusually high fee, it is why they were interested in Webb specifically, a story that the Dispatch reporters say came from Webb himself.

It seems that, after interviewing other suitable attorneys and firms with successful experience with this precise kind of negotiation process between the DOJ and a law enforcement entity in need of reform—like, for example, the firm that represented the city of Albuquerque recently to negotiate its consent decree—-Ferguson was attracted to Webb when they learned he had represented the infamous and very colorful Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, when Arpaio and company were facing a DOJ lawsuit.

Here’s a clip from Byers and Deere’s story:

it was Webb’s involvement in Maricopa County, Ariz., which is the subject of a Justice Department investigation, that attracted the attention of Ferguson, Webb said. The DOJ alleged that the Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff Joseph Arpaio engaged in discriminatory and otherwise unconstitutional law enforcement actions against Latinos.

In 2012, the DOJ filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against Maricopa County, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and Arpaio. In a press release, the DOJ wrote: “negotiations were unsuccessful, primarily because the county and Arpaio refused to agree to any independent oversight by a monitor.”

“They have been the most belligerent” of the communities in negotiations with DOJ, said Walker, the professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.


CHARLIE BECK THANKS THE TROOPS FOR MAY DAY PEACE

Last Friday was May Day, which brought thousands to downtown Los Angeles for marches, demonstrations and celebration. Expecting big crowds, and a teensy weensy bit jittery about what the day might bring, what with the anger and grief still spilling out of Baltimore and elsewhere, the Los Angeles Police Department wisely called a tactical alert.

Happily, however, it was a peaceful day. And LAPD officers were reportedly helpful and firm, when need be, but not at all aggressive.

So, over the weekend, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck posted a thank you to sworn department members on the police union’s internal website.

To the men and women of the LAPD,

I want to personally thank you for showing the professionalism of the Los Angeles Police Department to the world on May Day. Your efforts allowed thousands of protesters and marchers to exercise their rights protected by our Constitution.

While there were some tense moments yesterday, I witnessed firsthand how LAPD officers exercised discipline and extraordinary professionalism while thousands of people took to the streets to express their views about a number of issues. The fact there was not a single incident, arrest or citation throughout the day is remarkable and indicative of your preparation, professionalism and respect for the communities we serve.

Despite the heat and the sensitive times we face in the law enforcement community across the country, each and every one of you shined. From the leadership team to the men and women working and walking with the various community groups, you did a phenomenal job and I am so proud of you. Like you do daily, you made the LAPD badge shine and the nation took notice.

Thank you and be safe out there.

Charlie

Nice.

Posted in ACLU, Free Speech, Freedom of Information, LAPD, Trauma | No Comments »

“Back on Track LA,” Sheriff and Doctor Duo Fight Trauma, How to Defend Kids Facing Life, and ending CA Prison Healthcare Oversight

March 12th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

NEW COLLABORATIVE LA COUNTY REENTRY PROGRAM SEEKS TO BE MODEL FOR NATION

On Wednesday, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, and Probation Chief Jerry Powers announced the launch of “Back on Track LA,” an innovative recidivism reduction pilot program that has been launched as a collaborative effort between the LASD, Probation, the AG’s Office, the LA County Child Support Services Dept., several foundations, and schools.

Back on Track provides participating inmates with education and job training, cognitive behavior training, and life skills and customized re-entry coaching.

“Instead of only reacting to crime, we must also focus on prevention to shut the revolving door of the criminal justice system,” says AG Harris. “Back on Track LA will hold offenders accountable to their communities, their families and themselves. This initiative will give participants the skills to become contributing and law-abiding members of society, which enhances public safety.”

Both Harris and McDonnell stressed the urgent need for such a program in California’s various counties, especially Los Angeles.

“At this very moment, 20,000 individuals are incarcerated in the Los Angeles County Jails,” said Jim McDonnell. “Too many of those in our jail and justice system come from broken homes and challenging life circumstances.”

McDonnell listed some of the challenges that the program will need to address, like early childhood trauma and the fact that a high percentage of jail inmates finished school.

“Very few of those filling our jails today have the needed tools to give them a good shot,” he said.

Ninety non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual offenders, who are now the county’s responsibility post-realignment, are enrolled in the pilot program, which began mid-February.

Once the initial 90 inmates are released from jail, they will receive transitional housing, help with employment, and continued mentoring the entire year after their release. In addition, the college credits they earn through the program during their incarceration can be transferred to any community college in the state.

In order to ensure that the program is actually working, researchers will be part of the process from the very beginning, tracking participants and their outcomes along the way and in the long-term, and measuring them against the outcomes of inmates not involved in the program.

The program is funded through a $750,000 grant through the US Department of Justice’s Second Chance Act (Back on Track was one of just four recipients nationwide), and grants from the California Wellness Foundation, the Rosenberg Foundation, and the Ford Foundation.

Back on Track is intended to become a model for California, and hopefully for the nation, McDonnell said on Wednesday:

“What we are announcing today is not merely an experiment. We know we have too many people in jail who can and should be contributing members of society. Many of those in jail regret the decisions of their youth that landed them where they are today.”

Such programs contribute to public safety, McDonnell said:

“It is tempting to believe that by being tough on criminals by depriving them of education and skills training, we are being tough on crime. But that’s simply not the case.

We can reduce crime by reducing criminals, and we can reduce criminals by giving people the skills they need to get Back On Track.”


A DOCTOR AND A SHERIFF JOIN FORCES TO TACKLE CHILDHOOD TRAUMA IN THEIR CITY NEIGHBORHOODS

Laura Starecheski has another excellent story for NPR about childhood trauma as a critical health issue. This latest story follows a doctor and a sheriff who join forces to combat childhood trauma in poverty-stricken, and high-crime areas in Gainesville, FL.

When the University of Florida’s Dr. Nancy Hardt, a pathologist and OB-GYN, and Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell realized that their respective hotspot maps (Hardt’s a map of children born into poverty, and the sheriff’s a crime map) were nearly identical, the unlikely pair knew they had to take action.

Here are some clips from Starecheski’s story:

The research shows that kids who have tough childhoods — because of poverty, abuse, neglect, or witnessing domestic violence, for instance — are actually more likely to be sick when they grow up. They’re more likely to get diseases like asthma, diabetes and heart disease. And they tend to have shorter lives than people who haven’t experienced those difficult events as kids.

“I want to prevent what I’m seeing on the autopsy table,” Hardt says. “I’ve got to say, a lot of times, I’m standing there, going, ‘I don’t think this person had a very nice early childhood.’ ”

Back in 2008, Hardt was obsessing about this problem. She wanted to do something to intervene in the lives of vulnerable kids on a large scale, not just patient by patient.

So, by looking at Medicaid records, she made a map that showed exactly where Gainesville children were born into poverty. Block by block.

Right away she noticed something that surprised her: In the previous few years, in a 1-square-mile area in southwest Gainesville, as many as 450 babies were born to parents living below the poverty line.

It just didn’t make sense to her — that was an area she thought was all fancy developments and mansions.

So Hardt took her map of Gainesville, with the poverty “hotspot” marked in deep blue, and started showing it to people. She’d ask them, “What is this place? What’s going on over there?”

Eventually she brought the map to the CEO of her hospital, who told her she just had to show it to Alachua County’s sheriff, Sadie Darnell.

So Hardt did.

And, to Hardt’s surprise, Sheriff Darnell had a very interesting map of her own.

Darnell had a thermal map of high crime incidence. It showed that the highest concentration of crime in Gainesville was in a square-mile area that exactly overlaid Hardt’s poverty map.

“It was an amazing, ‘Aha’ moment,” says Darnell.

“We kind of blinked at each other,” Hardt says. “And — simultaneously — we said, ‘We’ve got to do something.’”

Read on.


INSTRUCTIONS FOR ENSURING KIDS FACING LIFE IN PRISON RECEIVES SPECIALIZED AND SKILLFUL DEFENSE

On Wednesday, the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth released a set of guidelines for providing quality defense to kids facing life imprisonment.

Gabriella Celeste, Child Policy Director at Case Western Reserve University’s Schubert Center for Child Studies, explains why making sure these kids have skilled and thorough representation is so critical:

“Kids are kids. They don’t stop being kids just because our criminal justice system has deemed them ‘adults’ as a matter of legal fiction to justify placing them in the adult system. Our system forgets that kids are still growing, developing, and maturing. This is wrong. Worse yet, the harm caused to a young person cannot be overstated, both due to their unique developmental stage as an adolescent and the damage that results from children inevitably facing more years in prison than adults and being at greater risk for isolation, sexual assault, and other forms of violence and trauma. Having an informed advocate can make all the difference.”

The report calls for a defense team of at least four—an attorney with experience representing kids, an attorney who has represented defendants charged with homicide, an investigator, and mitigation specialist to discuss all possible contributing factors like trauma and poverty and to stress the ways kids’ and teenagers’ brains differ from those of adults. An interpreter should also be on the defense team, if needed.

The guidelines also say defense teams must regularly meet with and maintain open communication with the kids they are representing. Defense teams are also directed to advocate for their clients to be placed in juvenile facilities, and to make sure that those detention centers have proper education, mental health care, and rehabilitation services.

The guidelines are endorsed by dozens of advocate groups, including Gideon’s Promise, the Juvenile Law Center, the NAACP, the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the National Juvenile Defender Center.

Here are some clips from the report:

The representation of children in adult court facing a possible life sentence is a highly specialized area of legal practice, therefore these guidelines address the unique considerations specific to the provision of a zealous trial defense. These guidelines set forth the roles and responsibilities of the defense team for the duration of a trial proceeding and outline child-specific considerations relevant to pre-trial, trial, and sentencing representation. Direct appeal and collateral review are not explicitly addressed in these guidelines.

These guidelines are premised on the following foundational principles:

- children are constitutionally and developmentally different from adults;

- children, by reason of their physical and mental immaturity, need special safeguards and
care;

- children must not be defined by a single act;

- juvenile life defense is a highly specialized legal practice, encompassing the representation
of children in adult court as well as the investigation and presentation of mitigation;

- juvenile life defense requires a qualified team trained in adolescent development;

- juvenile life defense requires communicating with clients in a trauma-informed, culturally
competent, developmentally and age-appropriate manner…

- juvenile life defense counsel must litigate to ensure a meaningful individualized sentencing
determination, in which defense counsel is able to fully and effectively present mitigation
to the court.

[SNIP]

The mitigation specialist must investigate and develop a social, psychological, and genealogical history of the child client for purposes of presenting mitigating evidence at sentencing. The mitigation specialist also should work with the child client and his or her caretaker(s) to develop a reentry plan to present at sentencing.

Mitigation evidence includes, but is not limited to: the ability to make a positive adjustment to incarceration; the realities of incarceration; capacity for redemption; remorse; vulnerabilities related to mental or physical health; explanations of patterns of behavior; negation of aggravating evidence regardless of its designation as an aggravating factor; positive acts or qualities; responsible conduct in other areas of life (e.g., employment, education, as a family member, etc.); any evidence bearing on the degree of moral culpability; mercy; and any other reason for a sentence other than life…


FED. JUDGE BEGINS PROCESS TO GIVE CONTROL OF STATE PRISON HEALTHCARE BACK TO CALIFORNIA

On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson revealed a plan to end nearly a decade of federal oversight of healthcare in California’s prison system.

When Judge Henderson initiated the oversight, he said the conditions inmates were living under constituted cruel and unusual punishment: California prisons were averaging one easily preventable inmate death per week due to medical neglect.

(Henderson is also part of the three-judge panel forcing California to bring the prison population down…or else.)

The federal receiver overseeing healthcare in California’s prisons, Clark Kelso, says the situation is much better now: there are more medical staff members, the budget has doubled, and there are 40,000 fewer prisoners. But there are still cracks to be filled in.

Here’s a clip from a blended AP/Sacramento Bee story on the issue:

To address the issues, California over the last decade has:

Spent $2 billion on new medical facilities for prisons;

Doubled its annual budget for prison health care to about $1.7 billion; and

Reduced its prison population by more than 40,000 inmates.

According to a report by court-appointed federal receiver J. Clark Kelso, the state prison system now has:

Adequate medical staff;

Processes to ensure inmates receive care; and

An oversight system to catch problems when inmates do not receive care.

However, Kelso noted in his report that that the prison system still needs to make several improvements, including:

Adequately keeping medical records;

Appropriately scheduling appointments;

Delivering care onsite rather than sending inmates to outside hospitals; and

Upgrading treatment areas.

Under Henderson’s plan, every prison will have to pass an inspection before the feds return some of the control to the state. At that time, Kelso will step back and act as a monitor, with the ability to take back the reins if the state begins to backslide.

Posted in Department of Justice, Jim McDonnell, juvenile justice, Kamala Harris, LA County Jail, medical care, prison, Realignment, Reentry, Trauma | 2 Comments »

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