As TX Juvenile Justice System Recovers from Harvey, Addressing Trauma is Job One

When Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Gulf Coast, one of the public services it hit was the juvenile justice system. In some cases, it brought out the best in people, such as the youth at Willoughby House, a halfway house run by the state, who volunteered to sort donations at the Tarrant Area Food Bank, and Chaplain Madlock from the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Complex, who raised money to help buy food, water, and gas for the mother of one of the youth in the facility.

 Photo: NASA/NOAA GOES Project

Photo: NASA/NOAA GOES Project

But it has also posed some real challenges to the juvenile justice system. We are still learning about those challenges through communications from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD), conversations with local probation departments, and from other sources and stakeholders. This blog pulls together some of the pieces of the picture that is starting to emerge.

So far, it appears the system and the people who manage it handled the storm well, though there will be ongoing challenges, particularly for youth traumatized by the experience.

As a reminder, most Texas youth involved in the juvenile justice system are served by local county-run juvenile probation departments. The state’s TJJD provides some oversight and funding to those local departments and at any given time serves about 1,000 youth directly in six state institutions and seven state halfway houses.

With the storm bearing down on the Coast, those two parts of the juvenile system took different approaches based on their needs and the threat to their facilities. TJJD facilities sheltered in place. Four of them – Evins Regional Juvenile Center, Tamayo House, Ayres House, and Giddings State School – limited their staff to essential personnel for a few days. TJJD also closed a few District Offices, with the Houston Office closed a full week. Some juvenile probation facilities closer to the coast, on the other hand, evacuated their youth. Depending on the county, youth were evacuated to other juvenile facilities operated by the county, facilities in different counties further inland, and in Galveston County, to unused sections of the local county jail. In some cases, to limit the number of youth who needed to be accommodated in county facilities during the storm, judges held detention hearings to expedite the release of youth who didn’t pose a safety risk and could be safely released.

Today, the system is working to get back to normal, with a few visible examples of the damage and disruption from the storm. Juvenile probation departments that closed down for a week or two are opening back up. Because travel was difficult or impossible, and water damage in buildings make them unusable, there have been delays in youths’ court hearings and programming, such as counseling. When court proceedings were delayed due to damage in Harris County courtrooms, the County worked quickly to get hearings back on track in other parts of the building. In some probation departments, tracking down youth on probation has proven difficult due to families being displaced and limited communications infrastructure. On the TJJD side, the Giddings State School experienced some slight damage. The most significant casualty – a damaged gym roof – has been temporarily repaired.

Beyond the visible damage to these buildings and operations, the bigger challenge is the trauma and toll on the youth and the staff in the system. Many of the staff already have some of the most important and underpaid jobs in the state. During the hurricane and its immediate aftermath, some facility staff worked for days, unable to go home or be replaced by the next shift. Of course, officers and other staff members were also personally affected by the storm as they faced damage to their own homes. As juvenile justice leaders work to keep youth safe and promote their rehabilitation, they must ensure that the staff have the support they need to do their jobs effectively.

As always, juvenile justice leaders, judges, probation officers, and others should pay particular attention to the mental health concerns and past trauma experienced by youth in the system. We know that many of the youth in the system have already been through significant trauma. Research shows that 70 to 90 percent have had at least one traumatic experience.

The juvenile justice system – and kids’ lives – will also be shaped by the way hurricane-related trauma affects children and youth outside of the system. We know that past trauma – whether caused by a hurricane, witnessing violence, abuse, or something else – is a driver for involvement in the juvenile justice system and a predictor of how far a youth will go in the system. Research has shown that students who were displaced due to Hurricane Katrina showed an increase in behavioral issues at school and received more suspensions and expulsions from school, which are correlated with a higher risk of involvement in the juvenile justice system.

We must work to ensure that the trauma created by Hurricane Harvey does not push more youth into the juvenile justice system. To accomplish that goal, we must ensure that mental health and other support services are available in our schools and our communities. We must also ensure that teachers, counselors, school resource officers, Child Protective Services (CPS) staff, and others are trained in trauma-informed practice.

There’s no question there will be days when a child’s reaction to the trauma of Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath looks like misbehavior to the untrained eye. It may happen in a classroom, on the playground, in a juvenile justice facility, or somewhere in the community. The question is how will we react to these incidents, and how will we work to address trauma now to reduce the number of these incidents in the future.

As juvenile justice officials and state leaders move forward after the storm, addressing the trauma caused by the hurricane should be job one.