Thinking About Trauma in Juvenile Detention Facilities

Monique Marrow first started working on creating a trauma-responsive system in a juvenile justice setting when she worked as deputy director of treatment and rehabilitation services for the Ohio Department of Youth Services in 2005.

Back then, her approach to talking about trauma in the justice system was met with some pushback.

“Here comes Dr. Marrow, with her hug-a-thug speech,” she remembers some skeptical staff members saying.

Monique Marrow

But Marrow earned respect and trust after she found a way to improve conditions at youth detention facilities in Ohio, decreasing the number of critical incidents there as a result of staff training and trauma-responsive interventions aimed at children in the justice system.

Now, Marrow, a clinical child psychologist, has carved out a career as a national training consultant. Marrow works with the Center for Trauma Recovery and Juvenile Justice at the University of Connecticut and the University of Kentucky’s Center on Trauma and Children. She also authored “Think Trauma: A Training for Staff in Juvenile Justice and Residential Settings,” a curriculum created for the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

In the course of her work as a consultant, Marrow has trained staff in jurisdictions in more than 20 states. She has recently been hired to work on improving the conditions at juvenile halls in Los Angeles County, the largest juvenile justice system in the country.

She recently talked with The Chronicle of Social Change about the state of trauma-informed work in juvenile justice, her upcoming work with the Los Angeles County Probation Department and why empowering youth in juvenile detention centers remains a critical area of importance.

The Chronicle of Social Change: How much are trauma-informed ideas being absorbed into practices of juvenile justice systems across the country today?

Monique Marrow: I would say that systems across the country, particularly justice-related systems and child welfare systems, are very interested in becoming trauma-responsive, and many of them are beginning to invest quite a bit of financial and human resources to accomplish these goals. Part of the thing that has been helpful is that many of the ways to evaluate services have begun to incorporate requirements that are built on trauma-responsive practices. You have the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative tool that is designed to assess programs, and there are several parts in there that look at practices that are trauma-responsive. If the agency is using that as part of their evaluation, then they are going to be looking for opportunities to provide more programs. The requirements that the Prison Rape Elimination Act have several points at which you must engage in trauma-responsive practices and provide pyscho-education to youth around trauma, and the staff around identification of youth who experience trauma.

As a broader network, we have government agencies incorporating requirements that are trauma-responsive into their evaluative process, that opens up organizations to utilizing the tools that are being developed around trauma-responsive practices. I think we’re moving. I don’t think every agency is there, for sure, but I think we’re much further along than I was 12 years ago, when I had to dig really deep to find any programs or models that were talking about a trauma-responsive juvenile justice system. They just really didn’t exist. Back then, they used in-patient psychiatric models; there were no juvenile justice models.

We are coming to a place where people understand that in working with this population you have to have a good diversity of staffing. You have to have mental health staff, you have to have social work staff, you have to have adequate health care staff, as well as youth leaders — those that work directly with young people and supervise them. And I think the final piece now is where do we acquire staff. We’re now at a place now where we’re trying to reach into graduate programs and undergraduate programs to provide additional understanding and training for those interested in this field about the role of trauma in the lives of young people and what that means in terms of practice.

CSC: Maybe that means that being trauma responsive starts with how you recruit your employees.  

MM: Oh it’s huge. We’re beginning to work on how you change your human resources process to recruit the right person, which is important, and then of course your training process to support that person. Realistically, we know that you’re not going to be able to hire your way into being trauma-responsive. That’s a step, but you also have to be able to help inform the staff that you have.

But yes, human resources is key: the questions that you ask, the simple things like how do people deal with their own personal stress, because you know that you are going to be entering and working with a population of individuals that are highly stressed.  And we need to let people know that, and we need to help people develop the skillsets and tools they need. We do actually have a couple of programs that are dedicated to providing training for social workers in graduate programs, and we’re hoping that translates into a more informed workforce.

CSC: Can you tell us about your upcoming work with Los Angeles County?

MM: I’ll be working with L.A. County Probation around the juvenile halls for maybe the next two years. They’ll be trained on a curriculum and staff will be left with the opportunity to use the curriculum for new hires and in-service, and it hopefully becomes part of their overall, ongoing practice. We’re looking at combining trauma-responsive principles and training with what has come to be known as the Missouri Model, which is a more adolescent-focused intervention. And we’ll be developing the DBT, or dialectical behavior therapy, which is being modified to provide skills kids need for regulation. We’re bringing those things together to help inform the county’s entire practice in the new program at its halls. We’re going to look at piloting that, and how can we bring that to other camps as we move forward, so that’s my work for the next two years. It’s going to be a really big project but a really important one. I think that it can be accomplished and we have reasonable expectations, and it will be a true model of reform for many systems to consider.

CSC: You’ve said that understanding power dynamics represents an important part of implementing trauma-responsive environments in the juvenile justice system. Why does this matter so much?

MM: One of the things that we know is that interpersonal traumatic experiences often leave the individual with a sense of disempowerment. You find that individuals with a significant interpersonal trauma often work really hard to regain their sense of power and control. They are often keenly aware of situations that in their mind are designed to disempower them or disrespect them. I talk a lot about disrespect, particularly in the adolescent population, because it tends to be a major trigger for aggression, acting out or shutting down.

One of the principles of a child-responsive system is empowerment, and I often talk with the programs about ways in which they can, even within the confines of their relatively structured settings, provide empowerment opportunities to youth. That includes things like providing youth choice, such as having youth groups work together within the facility to maybe have the opportunity to give input on food choice or menu plans or new policies for assistance. Those are things that I try and help systems think through – what can you do in your own program that allows, that helps to empower youth and not disempower youth.

One of our groups recently talked about the fact that when visitation occurs, there’s not really adequate space for them to visit their family. They feel like people are standing over them listening to their conversations, and so that led to a process of trying to find better ways to facilitate visitation. We often talk about family as broader than those [family members] that are biologically related to your bloodline, so helping young people identify their own family support networks is a part of that, of course. In a facility, that means there are going to be some changes about who can come for visitation. So that’s an empowerment opportunity there.

CSC: There’s a lot of concern in the juvenile justice system about disproportionality, such as the high number of African-American youth represented in the system. How can a trauma-responsive system address this issue?  

MM: It’s important to help people understand how trauma can be expressed differently by different populations and how trauma may be expressed in urban populations, most of whom are young people of color. I think training is a good way to help people reframe the behaviors that they are looking at.

A good example for me is trauma often can make people shut down emotionally, so they look kind of cold, numb. They look, if you think they’ve done something they may look un-remorseful and even more importantly they may even look as if they are dangerous. So it’s important to talk about how the behaviors that you are seeing are built partially out of a young person’s experiences and attempts at survival. And so I think understanding trauma in the context of culture is really important, and every culture has the potential to express trauma differently.

Some kids can also be pretty withdrawn and kind of on the depressed end, and those might be less likely to be engaged by the justice system, but the ones that express it in a more assertive, aggressive, but yet not-demonstrating-emotion way are more likely to be picked up and potentially charged because we perceive them as dangerous.

Training of staff needs to be significant enough to make very clear that it can be expressed differently across cultures. And how that connects specifically to behaviors that they may see in a young person, and then providing of course training for the staff, and then how does your response change? What things do you do differently in terms of engagement with that young person?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 352 Articles
Jeremy is a West Coast-based senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at

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