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Children and Families: The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on Black Justice-Involved Youth
By Keith Loria
Social Work Today
Vol. 23 No. 3 P. 30

Black youth are more than four times as likely to be detained or committed in juvenile facilities as their white counterparts, according to recent data by the Sentencing Project. What’s more, Black adolescents in the justice system are much more likely to turn to sex, drugs, and alcohol at an earlier age.

Researchers have examined the contributing factors to these racial disparities for decades, often testing theories related to differential offending and system biases, which often examine either the individual level causes of offending or the system level causes.

A new study conducted by researchers at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis examined how childhood trauma greatly influences early life choices, particularly with sex, drugs, and alcohol.

The study, “Adverse Childhood Experiences, Sexual Debut and Substance Use Among Black Justice-Involved Youth: The Imperative of Trauma-Informed Sexuality Education,” published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review, theorized how sexual and substance use education that incorporates knowledge about trauma could improve developmental outcomes among Black justice-involved youth.

Abigail Williams-Butler, PhD, MSW, an assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Social Work, is a social worker and developmental psychologist who looks to inform practice and policy with her research, specifically focusing on the developmental trajectory of children and youth who are in child-serving systems.

“When there are different events that pop up in life, for example, trauma experiences, contact with different systems (criminal justice, child welfare, etc), it radically impacts their development,” she says. “I’m interested in looking at protective factors, particularly as they relate to African American youth within these systems.”

That led her to team with Tyriesa Howard, PhD, LMSW, an assistant professor of social work at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, and other collaborators for this study, examining data from the Northwestern Juvenile Project for the analysis.

“A lot of times people view these kids as ‘throw-away kids’—troubled kids or bad kids, and there’s no hope for them,” Williams-Butler says. “I fundamentally don’t believe that. I believe it’s about identifying strengths within the environment of youth that can help them have a positive outcome.”

A cohort of 368 Black adolescents (52.7% female, 11 to 17 years of age) who were arrested and detained in Cook County, Illinois, comprised the data thanks to completed assessments as part of the Northwestern Juvenile Project. At baseline, adolescents self-reported sexual debut, substance use initiation, and engagement in sex under the influence.

The collected data examined the role mental health services and substance use play in the lives of adolescents who are in touch with the justice system. Participants were reinterviewed over the years, whether they were in a correctional setting or in the community.

“They had tons and tons of really great data,” Williams-Butler says. “We were focusing on the role that trauma plays in their development and really tried to identify some important factors in development for these youth.”

From the research, Williams-Butler and colleagues were shocked at what they learned—97% of participants reported at least one adverse childhood experience, and 82% reported a sexual debut before turning 15. Additionally, more than 10% said they used alcohol or cannabis before they reached the age of 11.

“There are lots of studies that say that youth at high risk are more likely to experience trauma; what was really surprising here is that 97% experienced at least one adverse experience, which is much higher than the general population,” Williams-Butler says. “Also, the majority of the study [participants] reported early or very early sexual debut, which is also much different than the general population.”

Not surprisingly, the study authors learned that having a history of adverse childhood experiences influenced whether respondents had engaged in sex under the influence of drugs or alcohol, suggesting that childhood trauma influences substance use behaviors that contribute to risky sexual behaviors.

“We found that adverse experiences were related to substance misuse, which was related to early sexual debut; substance misuse being a way of coping. Misusing substances is a mechanism that explains early sexual debut,” Williams-Butler says.

While sexuality education curriculum varies widely by state, most programs tend to avoid discussions related to trauma. This oversight is problematic for justice-involved youth, especially those arrested for activities that “may be seen as traumatic within themselves, such as engaging in survival sex … or running away from physical violence in their home caused by childhood victimization,” the study notes.

The researchers also looked at household dysfunction factors before the age of 18, which Williams-Butler notes were also important because even though a youth is in adolescence, it can still have a major impact on their later development.

“Everything doesn’t have to happen in early childhood,” she says. “The thing is that adverse childhood experiences are amongst the general population, so it’s not to say these kids are so bad, but what is happening to this population of kids is having a negative impact on their development, and what we are doing is to intervene and act to improve their positive developmental outcomes.”

Another significant focus of the paper was thinking about the trauma-informed aspect of it.

“If you’re of a certain age, you remember that sex education just used to be ‘abstinence only,’ but you need to be aware that by the age of 11, 12, 13, these kids have already had sex, so ‘just say no’ education is not helpful.”

Those youth in the justice setting are much more likely to come from environments that are impoverished and have negative experiences, such as survival sex.

Education is key to improving the lives of these youth. What’s necessary is “ being aware of what’s happening, particularly for justice-involved youth related to the trauma and not just seeing them as mini-criminals or criminals in the making, but really thinking about these kids as individuals who have been hurt and what you can do to help them and improve them,” Williams-Butler says.

A major takeaway for social workers is that trauma-informed sexuality education is a viable option for justice-involved youth to learn enhanced skills for informed sexual health decision-making to reduce negative sexual health outcomes.

“A lot of this is about practice and policy implications; on the practice-end, trauma-informed care is really a hot topic now, but there are different ways you can be trauma-informed,” Williams-Butler says.

The paper looks at trauma-informed sexuality education, which is important for social workers who serve as educators. “You’re there to support the clients and inform them of the different ways that things can be improved in their lives,” Williams-Butler says. “It’s taking the trauma-informed approach and being aware of the contextual and situational factors for these youth. That’s important.”

The study also looks at how contact with the system in itself can be traumatic.

“Race related trauma is real, and being aware of these things as social workers is really important,” Williams-Butler says.

It’s also important to focus on the policy implications, and Williams-Butler notes that working alongside administrators and policymakers can help foster positive developmental outcomes for these youth.

“It’s not just about shuffling them along; these are kids who need support and resources,” she says. “Once you have that shift change and paradigm shift in terms of thinking, that can move the needle in different ways.”

Williams-Butler hopes the study will expand trauma-informed adolescent sexual health programming, which in turn could reduce sexual harm, unplanned and unwanted pregnancies, and sexual disease.

Future research, Williams-Butler notes, needs to continue to look at mental health service use and substance misuse as it relates to Black justice-involved youth. “There’s overwhelming disproportionate contact of these youth with the system, and identifying protective factors and assistance is important,” she says.

— Keith Loria is a D.C.-based, award-winning journalist who has been writing for major publications for nearly 20 years on topics as diverse as real estate, travel, Broadway, and health care.