Sunday, January 5, 2014

One in Five Juvenile Detainees May Have “Severe” Functioning Impairments

Across numerous social domains, a recent study reveals high levels of functioning impediments among former juvenile detention residents.

By: James Swift

A bulletin released last month by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) finds that as many as 20 percent of former residents at a Chicago detention center may have had “marked” functioning impairments, with less than 8 percent of the total population displaying no notable signs of impairment in functioning.

The data is pulled from the Northwestern Juvenile Project, a long-term study of youth held at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

“It’s a very broadly based study,” said Dr. Linda Teplin, NJP executive director. “People have speculated that kids in the juvenile justice system are not doing well, but our study has provided empirical evidence that their situations, in a variety of areas, are dire.”

The new OJJDP report examined the functioning impairment of young people held at the facility, three years after their release. For the study, researchers assessed youths held at the detention center between fall 1995 and summer 1998. More than 1,600 former detainees were included as participants in the study’s final sample.

Subjects were assessed on an eight-point scale, which measured, among other things, the youths’ school and work abilities, community interactions and interpersonal behaviors.

“Functional impairment refers to substantial impairment in day-to-day functioning,” said Dr. Karen Abram, lead report author and associate director at Northwestern University’s Health Disparities and Public Policy Program.

“It is assessed independently of having a disease or disorder; people can have a mental or physical disease and function well or they can function poorly.”

Abram said their means of measuring functional impairment, the Child and Adolescent Functional Assessment Scale (CAFAS), combines domain scale scores for a total score. “For this study, we chose a conservative cutoff of 100 or higher on the CAFAS total score to indicate ‘marked impairment,’” Abram said. In specific functioning domains, she said a score of 30 was used as a marker to identify impairment.

In the school and work domain, nearly a third of subjects were rated impaired in their functioning, while close to a fourth of subjects were rated “severely impaired” on the substance use domain. The domain with the largest number of youths considered impaired was community, in which 51 percent of subjects were considered functioning impaired.

In all, 21 percent of subjects were found to have “marked global impairment,” while an additional 7 percent of subjects were considered to have “severe global impairment.” Researchers said males were much likelier to have impaired functioning than females, although female subjects, in general, posted higher impairment scores on self-harm and emotional domains. African American and Hispanic subjects were also found to have higher school and work impairment scores than white cohorts.

Researchers suggest several public policy initiatives in the wake of the findings, including longer-term interventions, targeting high-risk groups and connecting more young people with community services after detention release.

“This study reveals that three years after detention, most youth struggle in one or more life domains, and one in five youth is severely impaired,” the bulletin concludes. “Juvenile justice organizations, community groups, law enforcement and corrections agencies must invest in targeted, comprehensive strategies to give these youth a chance to experience productive and healthy lives.”

While the study did not consider whether juvenile detention stays impacted the functioning levels of the youths evaluated, Abrams said detention experiences could, feasibly, provoke both negative and positive changes.

“Ideally, the system maximizes the potential that young offenders will become productive, law-abiding adults while minimizing the harmful impact of involvement with the juvenile justice system,” she said. “However, it can also lead to maladaptive responses, such as increased deviancy and poor psychosocial functioning.”

Uncommon Journalism, 2014.

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