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Stopping Criminalizing Challenging Behavior

The other day, not for the first time, we received a request to testify in juvenile court in an expert witness capacity.  The case involved a young adolescent boy in a residential treatment center.  A conflict with staff emerged, which escalated to the point where staff felt the need to restrain the youngster.  As often occurs, this child, already agitated himself, fought back, and injured staff in the process.  This was handled by the facility filing aggravated assault charges against the child, including assault with a deadly weapon, which is what it is called when an individual wearing shoes kicks someone.  And thus it is that a child with significant mental health issues, significant enough to warrant a residential therapeutic placement, makes their way into the criminal justice system as well.

We know from our extensive work in systems how, even with the most dedicated staff efforts, situations can get out of hand, staff can inadvertently escalate a client, and a very dangerous scenario can take shape.  Staff injuries are high in such settings, and ensuring the wellbeing of these front-line caregivers of some of the most challenging kids is an absolute priority.  At the same time, we know with absolute certainty that recourse to the criminal justice system is not where the solution to managing challenging behavior resides.  Giving staff a meaningful framework for understanding the kids in their care, and a solid, research-based approach to managing their challenges safely and productively, is best for all involved.  It is more than possible, and although the world still turns too slowly for our taste, more and more such settings are recognizing the perils and unproductive nature of a punitive stance and seeking to “think differently” about such youth.  It’ll be a great day when the last of the above such calls for help comes our way!

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