Unraveling probation officers' practices with youths with histories of trauma and stressful life events.

Author:Maschi, Tina

This study examines how probation officers' (POs) knowledge of juveniles' trauma influences probation practices. The study was conducted with POs who responded to a Web-based survey (n = 308). The POs were directed to randomly select one juvenile from their caseload and to complete the Probation Practices Assessment Survey to assess their knowledge of the youth's lifetime trauma and past-year stressful life experience and their practice approaches. Nineteen percent of youths were reported as having had lifetime exposure to at least one type of trauma (for example, physical assault, sexual assault, witness violent death). The most common traumatic experience was sexual assault, with 11% of POs reporting this experience among the study youths. Structural equation modeling results indicated that POs' knowledge of cumulative exposure to trauma is associated with treatment-oriented probation and counseling approaches. Results of this study signal the importance of careful assessments of exposure to trauma and stressful life events among youths on probation. The use of specialized trauma-informed assessment strategies also are recommended to increase the sensitivity of juvenile justice programs to trauma.

KEY WORDS: adolescents; juvenile justice; probation; stressful life events; trauma


Evidence suggests that youths who have been exposed to trauma and stressful life events are at an elevated risk of juvenile delinquency and juvenile justice involvement (Ford, Chapman, Mack, & Pearson, 2006; Widom, 1989). Traumatic experiences, such as being a victim of or witness to violence, have been linked to juvenile delinquency (Maschi, 2006; Widom, 1989). Traumatic experiences often are described as extreme stressors that involve the threat of or actual serious physical or psychological harm to oneself or significant others, such as family members or close friends (Piotrkowski & Brannen, 2002). Exposure to trauma may result in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for some youths (American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Arroyo, 2001). Studies have estimated up to 93% of youths in the juvenile justice system have histories of trauma, whereas upwards of 18% are diagnosed with PTSD (Abram et al., 2004; Crimmins, Cleary, Brownstein, Spunt, & Warley, 2000).

Stressful life events, such as the death of a loved one and family and school problems, also have been linked to juvenile delinquency (Maschi, 2006; Thompson, Maccio, Desselle, & Zittel-Palamara, 2007). Compared with trauma, stressful life events more commonly tax the adaptive capacities of individuals and cause distress or concern in most people (Piotrkowski, 1998). In response to stressful life events, youths may manifest their distress in many ways, including psychological, emotional, and behavioral problems, including juvenile delinquency (Hoffman & Cerbone, 1999; Maschi, 2006).

Youths who are exposed to traumatic or stressful experiences are at higher risk of developing adverse emotional and psychological consequences (for example, affect dysregulation and hyperarousal), which in turn interfere with problem solving and interpersonal functioning (Ford, Chapman, Hawke, & Albert, 2007; Potter & Jenson, 2007; Vermeiron, 2003). Moreover, exposure to trauma and stressful life events challenge youths' coping resources and are associated with a variety of negative developmental outcomes in addition to delinquency, including alcohol and drug abuse (Maschi, 2006; Thomberry, Ireland, & Smith, 2001; Vermeiron, 2003). The high rates of trauma exposure among youths in the juvenile justice system have led to calls for the development of trauma-informed juvenile justice interventions to improve the treatment of this high-risk population (Ford et al., 2007; Ko et al., 2008).

Because a majority of youths legally considered delinquent have been sentenced to probation by a court (Snyder & Sickmund, 2006), probation programs are a key point of contact for many youths who have experienced trauma or stressful life events. Yet few scholars have examined the impact of probation officers (POs) on this population. Empirical research on the assessment and intervention strategies used by POs with these youths is needed for ongoing efforts to establish a trauma-informed system of care (Bartollas & Miller, 2005; Ford et al., 2007; Ko et al., 2008). Thus, this study explored how POs intervene with juveniles with histories of trauma and life event stressors. Specifically, the study examined POs' level of knowledge of traumatic and stressful fife experiences among the youths on their caseloads and how their knowledge of trauma influenced the probation interventions.


The capacity of juvenile probation programs to intervene effectively with youths exposed to trauma or chronic stress is not yet fully understood. Prior research in this area has not examined the degree to which POs assess exposure to trauma or how their enforcement and case management strategies are tailored to meet the particular needs of these youths.

Two roles underlie most probation interventions: enforcement and case management (Griffin & Torbet, 2002; Walsh, 2001). The goal of the enforcement role is to ensure that delinquent youths satisfy the conditions of probation as ordered by the court. This includes promoting compliance and holding juveniles accountable for noncompliance. Case management is intended to reduce risk of repeated delinquency and increase the youths' well-being and resilience. These interventions include psychosocial assessment, referral to treatment programs, and direct counseling. Research suggests that most POs use a balanced approach that includes both enforcement and case management interventions (Schwalbe & Maschi, 2009; 2011).

Though not classically associated with treatment, POs' enforcement strategies are of no small consequence for trauma-exposed youths. The effects of trauma on social-cognitive functioning and emotional regulation, including biased attributions, sensitivity to hostile cues, and deficits in social problem solving (Dodge & Pettit, 2003; Lansford et al., 2006), are likely to have a negative impact on PO-youth relationships. Research indicates that POs who perceive youths to be noncompliant are more likely to use coercive and confrontational approaches, including threatened sanctions and violation of probation (Schwalbe & Maschi, 2011). As POs increase pressure on youths to comply with court-ordered conditions, the likelihood of more severe sanctions, including detention and secure institutional placements, increases. These placements may exacerbate a traumatic or stress response because of the stress related to prolonged confinement (Ford et al., 2007). Thus, approaches to enforcement based on problem solving, incentivizing behavior, counseling, and persuasion may be more helpful for these youths than confrontation and negative pressure (Skeem, Louden, Polaschek, & Camp, 2007; Vidal & Skeem, 2007).

In summary, a review of the literature reveals that exposure to trauma and stressful life events and the mental, emotional, and behavioral consequences of such exposure are highly prevalent among youths involved with all levels of the juvenile justice system, including probation. However, the literature describing how youths with trauma histories are identified and treated while on probation is sparse. Based on a review of the literature, this study pursued the following two research questions: (1) What do POs report about their knowledge of trauma and stressful life events among youths on their caseloads? and (2) How is POs' knowledge of trauma and stressful life events among youths on their caseload associated with their choice of probation practice strategies (for example, treatment-oriented strategies, confrontational approaches, behavioral approaches, and counseling...

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