5 Takeaways From a Decade as a Therapist in our Juvenile Justice System

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I’m an Orthodox Jewish woman who spent years working in prison with juveniles. And the most threatening thing I encountered was the staff.

In 2009, I had my first exposure to our country’s justice system, as an intern in a methadone clinic in New York. My caseload was full of Rikers Island parolees who were trying to get clean from opioids or maintain their hard-earned sobriety. Shortly after that (2010), I got my Master’s degree in Social Work and had my first involvement in the juvenile corrections system. My first post-master’s job was as a community mental health therapist working in several inner-city high schools with a large variety of clients and diagnoses. As my caseload continued to develop, I quickly learned that the cases I loved the most were those of the aggressive, often violent and court-involved, teenage boys.  However, the more I worked with them, the more disillusioned I became to learn that regardless of their extreme history of abuse and complex trauma, all their previous therapists had focused on “anger management” and “coping skills.” 

Despite the many logistical barriers that I faced (not having an office, for example – thank you Starbucks in Target!), I dove into deep trauma work with these boys. What I discovered was astounding. Within weeks, their aggression consistently decreased, their dissociation (black out episodes from rage) was nearly eliminated, and their social, emotional, and academic functioning (the mental health bar for progress and impairment) increased significantly! Amazed at the results, I continued with the work, now implementing several aspects of CBT as well. The teens learned the importance of self-awareness, the difference between assertive and aggressive communication and how to identify and manage potential triggers. I learned my first lesson before ever stepping foot into a juvenile lock-up. 

  1. These kids are all traumatized. Treat them accordingly, and you may actually achieve your stated mission of rehabilitation. 

Having had this epiphany and watching the success of this reality play out repeatedly, I did some introspection: This was clearly my specialty and passion. Where was the best place to find aggressive teenage boys? I pondered on this briefly and then – lightbulb!  Juvenile Prison. An entire building full of trauma victims waiting to heal? What an amazing opportunity, I thought.

In the summer of 2012, I accepted a position in one of the four Juvenile State Prisons where I was living at the time. This facility had just recently received the national prestigious PbS Barbara Allen-Hagen Award for its outstanding treatment of the youth in its care. I was elated! I remember squealing with joy when I received the call that I got the job. This was my calling and my passion; it felt like a dream come true. I couldn’t wait to help all these children heal and process their trauma! I was itching to begin developing deep, meaningful, cathartic, therapeutic relationships with these kids, full of unconditional positive regard, and endless room for healing. The countdown to my first day of work began! But, to my horror.

  1. Our justice system (juvenile and adult) does NOT treat them accordingly. At all. And, fails miserably at its stated mission of rehabilitation.

The kids were tackled. And restrained. And locked in the “box” (a seclusion cell). All the time. Oh, and, the staff (officers, teachers, admin), often more criminal than the children, had sexual relationships with them. And brought in contraband – all types, you name it. Cigarettes, lighters, alcohol, weed, porn, cell phones. But I’m tough. After the initial trauma of experiencing all of this wore off, I could have bounced back. I would have been able to handle watching the guards instigate with the youth until they would snap and become violent and then have a “signal” (alert for help called on the staff radios) called on them, resulting in getting restrained, handcuffed, and thrown in the box. I would have been able to watch the guards physically turn their bodies away from the gangs, as they bullied and victimized the weaker kids. I would have been able to deal with the unit manager saying, “I see you b**ch. What the f**k do you want?” to a 14-year-old who was trying to get his attention, presumably to ask him for another lock for his box or some hygiene products. I could have handled the staff and kids going to the backroom (where there was no camera at the time) to “work out their beef” (fight). I could have dealt with the “hits” that the staff put on youth who they felt disrespected them. You know, whoever beat them up badly enough got paid (they’d get paid extra if the kid was sent to the hospital due to extreme injuries). I could have handled the abuse of power, corruption, blood, daily physical and emotional danger, and everything else that came along with it. Like I said, I’m tough. I could have, except…see lesson #3.

  1. The system will destroy, demolish, chew, swallow, regurgitate and repeat, anyone who is there to advocate for the youth.

So, first some facts about my time there. In my less than 2 1/2 years working in the building, five master-level social workers were hired and quit (some had been hired shortly before me and some quit shortly after I left). I think the longest one lasted 13 months. Next fact. When I started, most people scoffed when meeting me, saying, “we’ll give you two months.” I remember the training officer, who was actually quite nice, was significantly more liberal. “Everyone is saying 2 months about you before you quit. I don’t know; you have some fight in you. I’d give you 6 months,” she said, with a combination of caution and hope. Next fact, at some point during my time there, my tire got slashed while parked in front of the building. While they couldn’t see who it was on the camera because of the “glare from the sun,” I know who it wasn’t: The kids who were locked up behind barbed wire and many, many locked doors. 

Now, some fun facts about me. I’m a Caucasian, Orthodox Jewish female who was born and bred in the suburbs. Growing up as an Orthodox Jew, we were inculcated with life values such as, “love thy neighbor like thyself” and “lighten the burden of your fellow man.” Though certainly flawed humans, our teachers and role models firmly believed that our purpose in life is to bring G-d into the world and make the world a better place. Growth, character development, and restoration after transgression are values that have been in my blood from as young as I can remember. Another fun fact about me: I was born a fighter. My mother would say that in utero she already knew I was a fighter. In my 18-hour old hospital picture, I am smiling, and my hand is up as if I am waving to the world. I have 6 brothers, which helped me retain my organic fighting spirit, and am sandwiched in the middle of 4 of them (I also have 2 sisters). Giving up, is not only nowhere to be found within me or around me, but where the average (healthy?) person “gives up” I thrive. I love a challenge. I thrive in chaos and in crisis. The more unsafe my surroundings are, the calmer I am and the more laser-focused all of my senses, including my prefrontal cortex, become. Another thing about me is my love for people, even though I am a hard-core introvert. I see people, I connect with people, I respect people, and I understand people arguably better than anyone I have ever met. Oh, and one last fact: I hate seeing others suffer and will do anything I can within an appropriate framework to reduce the suffering of another.

Full circle, here’s what we know about the prison I was working in: It was full of victims of prior trauma (the reason I had gone there to begin with), full of abusers who were retraumatizing them daily, it demolished anyone who advocated for them, and it created an infrastructure that made it impossible for me to do my job (more on that shortly). Here’s what we know about me: I was born a fighter into a family full of boys and into a culture and religion whose stated mission is to make this world a better place and lighten the load of others. The more unsafe I am, the higher functioning I become. And, I love people and hate to see them suffer. See what’s happening here?

So, I stayed. And tried my hardest to build relationships with the kids, the core element to any therapeutic success. I ran groups with them, did weekly sessions with them, played basketball with them, de-escalated them when they were on the verge of being restrained, created programs to reinforce academic success, invited their family into treatment and just hung out with them. My office always had kids in it. Either multiple kids (sometimes close to 15 or 20) listening to music and playing basketball with my nerf basketball hoop, or one on one while I did sessions. Any time I’d walk down the hallway, I’d bring a kid with me for an opportunity to “take a walk” and get a change of scenery or blow off some steam. I loved these kids with my heart and soul. I broke news of the death of loved ones, created space for them and healed with them. We laughed together, cried together and fought (metaphorically speaking) together. The memories we created will last a lifetime for all of us. To this day, it is not uncommon for a kid to reach out to me with a memory that I don’t even recall. “Remember when my boy got killed and you let me cry and listen to music in your office?” I got that message from a youth who was not even on my caseload, not too long ago. 

I stayed when they banned me from talking to kids who were not on my unit. I stayed when they threatened to fire me, about a month or two into the job because the Social Workers became mandated to work one weekend a month, and being Sabbath observant, I couldn’t work on Saturday. I stayed when they wrote me up for “failure to follow the chain of command” because I asked the superintendent for permission (after they denied my request) to leave early on a Friday to get home in time for Sabbath (my normal work schedule was Sunday-Thursday, this was a training 2 hours away on a day that I normally didn’t work). I stayed when they declined my request for time off for Passover (blamed it on the union – said I was only on the job 5 1/2 months, and not 6, minimum union requirements) and threatened to call me in AWOL when I requested leave without pay instead. Side note, I had anticipated this already in my August interview and told them then, that if I took the job, I’d need Passover off. I reached out to the person who hired me (who quit right after I started) to confirm, and she told me that she’s nearly certain she put it in the interview notes, and it should be in my file. I stayed when they consistently created false rumors about me, like sleeping with the kids, or the deputy superintendent (a married man with 3 teens) or the psychology supervisor (a married man with several children and grandchildren). I distinctly remember a conversation between two of my clients one day (14-year-old and 18-year-old – two different units), while hanging out in my office and listening to music. 

14 (making a disgusted face): Ay, CP. Do you know that when I be with you my staff be saying that we be doing sexual stuff?

18 (nearly jumping out of his chair): Oh, my G-d, bro!!! My staff be saying the same thing when I’m with her!

I stayed when I got the frosty looks in the hallway, the hostile comments and personal verbal attacks in team meetings (“CP did you hear that? He’s talking to you”). I stayed when they “randomly” moved my clients off my unit and caseload one holiday weekend and ordered me to not have anything to do with them. They attacked, I pivoted and stayed. They reloaded and fired again, I re-strategized and stayed. And then, shortly after over 2 years working there, something happened. The adults in the building finally got savvy enough to recognize that the only thing that I truly cared about was the youth and their treatment. Not the drama, not the pettiness, not the incessant bullying and victimization towards me; none of it. All I cared about, was the youth. And they launched an attack on them. Slowly but surely, all the kids on my caseload began to get targeted just for simply being on my caseload. Sometimes it was more benign (a “random” stop and search in the hallway) and sometimes it was clearer, like when a staff told one of my kids that if he ever sees him in the community he’s going to “put him on a shirt” (kill him, and there will be a RIP shirt with his face on it). At first, I didn’t quite grasp what was going on, but then one day, I heard myself giving the following disclaimer to some new youth. “I’m just giving you a heads up – you are going to be targeted once people find out that you’re on my caseload.” Social Workers, by trade, are client advocates. If my clients are going to be victimized solely for being my clients, it is impossible for me to do my job. Which is why I eventually chose to leave and which brings me to lesson 4:

  1. Never lose sight of your mission.

In this case, it was to help children heal from trauma, remember? That was my entire hope going into this job, and the reason I applied for it to begin with. As long as I was the only one getting victimized, and I continued to have moments of victory and success, I stayed. Even as I saw all those Social Workers come and go saying “I have a license to protect; I can’t be here!” I always justified staying because I knew if I left, these kids had no one. I knew the impact I was having on their lives and I knew the positive energy I brought into the building each and every day. I knew I was role modeling prosocial behavior when kids would ask me, “CP, do you ever get angry? Cuz I swear I ain’t ever see you mad…not even when…” and go on to list the most recent obnoxious interaction a staff had with me. I knew I made a difference when the kids would say, “CP I swear if you weren’t here I woulda been killed myself,” or “Man, Ms. CP I am happy they put me on your caseload. You’re the only Social Worker who really do sh*t for her caseload.” I knew I was helping heal trauma and introducing the kids to what it can feel like to have a healthy relationship with a safe and caring person. But then, they began harming the kids, solely to target me. The youth were being extra victimized for no other reason than being on my caseload. And at that point, I was no longer able to actualize my original mission. At that point, not only was I was no longer helping heal trauma, I was involuntarily involved with the retraumatization of my clients. So, having never lost sight of my original reason for being there, I left in the beginning of 2015, which brings me to the final and perhaps most vital lesson.

  1.  The American justice system needs a complete overhaul of all of its current policies and procedures.

Shortly after I left, the Department of Justice issued a report, stating that my state’s juvenile system is “in many ways a model system.” The institution I worked in once again won the national PbS Barbara Allen-Hagen Award and yet, from the information that I continue to obtain, the staff are still as abusive as ever. The administration still spends most of its energy creating a culture where advocacy is maligned and abuse of power is applauded. While I intentionally did not name the agency or the State in which this takes place, I fully expect to feel their wrath and retaliation if/when this reaches them. I only hope this also ends up in the hands of someone who not only has a fire lit within them regarding the massive abuse and corruption in our criminal “justice” system but also has the power to make a real difference and effect real change. Until then, I’ll remain an advocate and supporter to all these kids (now grown men) who yearn for connection and somehow continue to find me. And I’ll continue living by the infamous words of the serenity prayer: “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Amen.

CP Handler is the owner of Resonant Therapies and co-founder of Key to Me.

One Response

  1. I am very interested if you could overcome the lacking music literacy in the society and if you could integrate some of the most impactful approaches in Expressive Arts – music-centered modalities in the settings where emotional resonance is the key to overcoming compound trauma ?

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