The history of many young New Mexicans who ended up in juvenile detention shows a brutal betrayal of their innocence and youth.
Many were victims of neglect, abandonment, beatings or rape, and were exposed to family violence, mental illness, drug abuse and more.
They had patterns of early childhood abuse and neglect that was seven times higher than similar teens in other national studies.
While the results are grim, the study’s authors – experts from different agencies and fields – say they believe it can be a launch pad for greater interagency and professional collaboration, as well as for growing resources and sharing them.
“Our real hope is that we can use it in a way to get involved with the whole family, the little brothers and little sisters,” says Dr. George Davis, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with the state Department of Children, Youth and Family Services Juvenile Justice System. “Delinquency, substance abuse and family violence are public health menaces of the first rank.”
The study published in February for the New Mexico Sentencing Commission evaluated 220 juvenile offenders incarcerated in 2011 and their exposure to traumatic events earlier in their lives.
“The study was intended to better establish the association between early childhood and delinquency,” the authors write, “as well as to explore the role that law and medicine can play in ensuring better juvenile justice outcomes.”
Of those 13- to 18-year-olds incarcerated, 190 were boys and 30 were girls. Physical neglect affected 100 percent of the boys and 93 percent of girls.
One in five boys reported sexual abuse, and about half reported physical violence. For the girls, more than two-thirds reported sexual abuse and almost three out of four reported physical violence.
The study uses nine childhood events that have proven to have long-term effects as its measure. Of the boys, nearly 75 percent were exposed to five or more of the adverse childhood events, while over 86 percent of the girls reported five or more of the traumatic events.
Yael Zakia Cannon, a study author and law professor, says comparable studies in other states evaluate youth with four or more events as high risk, but teens in the New Mexico study had as many as eight or nine events.
“That level of trauma puts those youth off the charts nationally in terms of the research,” she says.
That much trouble as their bodies and brains are developing stacks the deck against them, not just for delinquency, but also for higher risk of chronic disease such as diabetes, cancer and heart failure, according to research cited in the study.
Along with chronic disease, the toxic trauma changes the brain, leaving the kids with less emotional control and less ability to find rewards in safer places like academics, family love and friendship.
Other research demonstrates that kids with this many adverse childhood events “have immediate negative consequences, such as functional changes to the developing brain,” according to the study. It makes the kids more likely to break the law and act out in other ways, it says.
Another study author, Dr. Andrew Hsi, is medical director of the University of New Mexico’s FOCUS early intervention program, which provides support and services for families of children at risk from birth through 3 years. He says he is working with his colleagues at UNM’s Health Sciences Center to expand the program to cover families and children until they are 18 years old, because he knows this kind of support can help families change.
“These kids are working from a real disadvantage,” he says. “The sooner they are identified, the more likely they are to do better.”
Davis says he works with kids like those studied everyday and has hopes that with enough intervention and expert collaboration, kids in trouble can turn their lives around.
He isn’t surprised by the findings. “I’ve always known this is true,” he says. “It’s beyond what anyone has admitted. This contributes to a new model for understanding delinquency.”