By David Liebler.
It’s no secret that youths incarcerated in Juvenile Hall are often victims of a traumatic past. And usually their symptoms have gone untreated before entering the system. San Diego County sought to attack this ongoing problem head on by introducing specialized treatment within their detention facility. It’s called the Trauma Responsive Unit (TRU), and it’s showing impressive results.
Started in 2016, the program has a capacity of 20 juveniles at a time. It’s run out of a modified unit where an emphasis is placed on direct engagement and positive interaction with the youths. Since the average stay for a youth in detention is about 16 days, treatment is very concentrated to fit an individual’s time frame. And treatment is available to youths no matter whether they are pre- or post-disposition.
Potential participants are screened to assess their level of trauma and symptoms. “We really focus on the youth who have the most impairment and try to help them to manage that the best way they can,” said Probation Department Treatment Director Geoff Twitchell, PhD.
“We are taking highly reactive kids who are not responding well in other units and bringing them in to our unit — and seeing significant changes in their behavior,” Supervising Probation Officer Sean Scott said.
Staff members – including probation officers, treatment staff, teachers and medical staff – have undergone specialized training and work as one cohesive unit. Probation officers are trained to perform a central role as “skill reinnforcers” and are able to assist youths when they are triggered by traumatic reminders.
“The thing I like best is that it’s collaborative,” explained Dr. Twitchell. ”Everyone is learning the same treatment approach; they all speak the same language.”
Dr. Twitchell said that the County is excited by the program’s impacts thus far. There’s been an elimination of assaults and violent incidents and a significant decrease in trauma symptoms and suicidal behavior in comparison to other similarly sized male housing units.
Isiaah is 16 years old and has benefited from the TRU program. He is quick to rattle off what he has learned to help him have more patience, relieve stress and reduce his anger. It’s a program that “isn’t meant to break you down, but to build you up,” and he’s ready to put the lessons into practice to “improve his life.”
Probation Officer Scott has seen significant improvement in Isiaah’s behavior since he has been in the unit. He now engages positively with other youths and staff, and is learning tools to cope with stress and anger.
Dr. Twitchell sees the TRU program as “a great investment. It has great payoffs that are immediate. In addition to the youth benefiting, the staff benefits. It’s a rewarding experience.”
Scott echoed these sentiments, explaining that any initial skepticism about the program has disappeared, and, in fact, staff is now requesting to be transferred into the unit.
Supporters of TRU can be found inside the courtroom as well. Juvenile Court Judge Carolyn Caietti is a big proponent of the program and said she would like to see it expanded. “Juvenile justice is about rehabilitation,” she said.
“A lot of the mental health needs of our kids have gone unaddressed until they come within the juvenile justice system,” said Judge Caietti. “We’re doing a disservice to the youth, their families as well as the community if we don’t address these youth. “
San Diego County’s Trauma Responsive Unit was honored as part of the 2016 CSAC Challenge Awards, which recognize the most innovative best practices developed by California Counties.