University of Denver Launches Program to Help Juvenile Justice-Involved Girls
An alarming trend is unfolding in communities across the country: The number of females in the juvenile justice system is steadily on the rise. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), girls now account for 30% of all juvenile arrests in the United States.
Just as alarming is the fact that this distressing trajectory is aggravated by the mental health challenges facing these girls. More than 70% of girls in the system have a history of trauma that began long before they committed a crime.
“I want to dedicate my life to working with victims and finding ways to enhance public safety,” says Apryl Alexander, a forensic psychologist at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP). “What if we were able to treat girls before they entered the juvenile justice system? What if we actually addressed the trauma? Maybe then they wouldn’t have problems in school, or they wouldn’t have problems in the community, and we could address crime by addressing trauma.”
Alexander’s vision has resulted in a new three-year federal grant from OJJDP to develop the Denver FIRST Juvenile Justice Project. The grant allows for an empirically based trauma treatment program for juvenile justice-involved girls, primarily those who gave experienced trauma.
“We want to work with youth on some of the thoughts and feelings that they have surrounding their trauma and how that changes their thinking and their behavior,” Alexander says. “The hope is to provide them with psycho-education and skills training on coping with trauma to help them heal from their trauma.”
Working with juvenile offenders is just one aspect of the Juvenile Justice Project. Alexander says they will connect with community partners to provide training on how to deliver trauma-informed care in different systems. Another goal is to focus on prevention by treating juveniles who have experienced trauma but are not known to the justice system. This aspect involves a new collaboration between Alexander and Tracy Vozar, a clinical professor in GSPP who directs the Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Specialty.
According to Vozar, young children who are continually in trouble at school often have experienced trauma. By collaborating through the Juvenile Justice Project, she and Alexander aim to identify these kids and their families and provide help before matters escalate to the juvenile justice system.
“Parent-child interaction therapy is targeted to children and their caregivers to really coach the parents on how to work with their children to enhance compliance and improve behavior all by improving the parent-child relationship,” Vozar says. “Caregivers work directly with their own child, and we coach them on how to do that through another room.”
Vozar says their clients are often parents who are seeking this type of service. However, they also work with parents who are referred from the school system or the juvenile justice system. Clients then work with trained student clinicians in the different GSPP programs.
“I’m really excited to be a part of this,” says Jessica Camara, who will receive her master’s degree in forensic psychology this spring. “I enjoy having the opportunity to work with juveniles because it’s interesting to understand psychology through a developmental lens.”
Camara has worked directly with Alexander and Vozar in creating the program and determining what therapy will look like for both juveniles and their caregivers. She hopes the Juvenile Justice Project can help remove the stigma that exists around therapy, especially with younger individuals.
“Therapy is not something that is always talked about,” she says. “We are beginning to see adolescents talk about it in a positive light, but that was not always the case.”
The Juvenile Justice Project is beginning to take referrals. Alexander’s hope is that the program will grow beyond this initial grant as the work begins to have an impact on the community.
“I understand from a victim perspective that we don’t want to use trauma as an excuse, but it gives some understanding on how these kids have behaved,” Alexander says. “Kids don’t just do something terrible, that doesn’t come from nowhere, so let’s start by looking at their trauma history not just the behavior that might occur later on.”
To contact the Denver FIRST Juvenile Justice Project for referrals, please email DenverFIRST.JJP@du.edu.