The Texas Model is a comprehensive approach to managing and improving the juvenile justice system. The purpose of the Model is to help youth increase their chances of success in life while also making our communities safer. In developing and refining the Texas Model, we use science and evidence to find ways to reach the youth in our care.
A central goal of the juvenile justice system is correcting behavior. In determining the methods to be used in the model, correcting behavior is at their core. We must also seek to understand the youth in our care and what approaches are most likely to reach them. Only this way, can we hope to help them to better understand themselves and support them in correcting behavior that is not socially appropriate or dangerous to the community.
The main tenets of the Model are:
- Keep youth as shallow in the system as possible
- Grow probation resources and preserve local control
- Focus on the needs and risks of youth
- Provide scalable, graduated options to meet youth and system needs
- Commit to the shortest appropriate time period for youth to be in our system
- Have youth stay as close to their communities whenever possible according to their best interests
- Infuse trauma-informed care into everything we do
The Youth in Our Care
The typical youth at TJJD has experienced significant childhood trauma. This consistent set of threats and stress they have lived through can actually hamper brain development, setting it to believe they are under almost constant threat.
That means that it is likely that they do not react to stress or think through decisions in the same ways as other teens, which probably led to many of the reasons they came to us. Our goal must then be to create an environment where we can help them to learn how to make decisions, manage their own emotions and reactions to stress, and learn to take responsibility for their lives and decisions—in other words to correct.
This goal leads us to the Texas Model for Trauma-Informed Corrections. The model requires creating an atmosphere where youth can feel safe and begin to build appropriate trusting connections and set appropriate boundaries with others—something likely lacking in their pasts. This environment allows us to correct behavior in a way that best enables progress and learning and to empower youth to regulate their own reactions to stress and emotions and build decision-making skills.
It is critical that we have the safest environment possible, for both youth and staff. Safety is also the first step toward trauma-informed corrections and is central to its practice. When a youth comes to us, not only is the transition frightening but also it is very likely that the youth is coming from an environment where feeling safe was not the norm. Many have been living in a survival mode, constantly seeking safety and security without much consistent success. Therefore, our first task with any youth is to foster in them a sense of “felt safety”, which means it is not good enough for us to judge them as safe; they also have to feel that way.
Safety is based in trust. In a dangerous or scary situation, we usually need to trust others to help keep us safe. When the others have power over us, we can only feel safe if we believe in them and know that they are capable and want to protect us.
It is also important that we stay safe by ensuring that youth who are actively violent are removed from the situation for the safety of others and that safety plans are carefully crafted and consistently followed.
Additionally, the Texas Model teaches a wide variety of not only de-escalation tools but also tools to avoid escalation in the first place. The four levels of engagement serve not just to teach regulation and prosocial behaviors and responses but also to keep everyone safer. Better safety is achieved with greater tools to catch behavior when it is low and intervene before it escalates as well as methods to de-escalate higher-level behavior.
Adverse Childhood Experiences
One tool that helps our agency understand our youths’ backgrounds and experiences is called Adverse Childhood Experiences—or ACEs. ACEs involve tracking ten of the most pervasive and significant negative experiences of childhood. They include physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, domestic violence, mental illness in the home, substance abuse in the home, a close family member in prison, and parents apart.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that ACEs have a tremendous impact on future violence, victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity. People with just one of these factors have a 200% to 500% increased chance of attempting suicide. At four ACEs, the chances of a suicide attempt goes up to 2400% higher and at seven ACEs to a staggering 5100% higher than those with no ACEs.
In the general public, CDC estimates that 12.6% of the general public have four or more of these factors. In contrast, 52% of our youth in secure facilities have four or more in a conservative estimate. When broken down, about 50% of our boys have four or more ACEs and 87% of our girls have four or more with 47% of girls having seven or more.
These types of traumatic experiences in childhood are rarely isolated, but rather are often pervasive, happening consistently. When a child grows up in such an environment, it often affects brain development. The most important issue related to brain development is that the portion of the brain that controls problem solving, judgment, impulse control, empathy, and appropriate social and sexual behavior does not develop at the same rate as other youth, so the part of the brain that contains survival instincts, emotions, and the fight, flight, or freeze response is in control more often than it is in other kids. There will be more on this topic to come, but the central point is that because of these issues, our youth often have a “hair-trigger fear response”. This means that they often react to triggers and stressors that we may not even notice through quickly escalating responses because their survival brain is taking over.
If you would like to learn more, you can go to the CDC’s website or Aces Too High. And if you would like to understand your own ACE score as well as your resiliency factors that help you with any ACEs you may have, go here.
Trauma-informed corrections is central to the vision of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. Every day in our facilities we have interactions with our youth that have the potential to end in violence or self-harm. Our goal is always to provide the best possible outcome, but too often past treatment options overlooked the underlying cause of a youth’s behavior, in particular a history of childhood trauma.
The intention of Trauma-informed corrections is to understand how childhood trauma can create triggers, frustrations, anxiety, and other symptoms that are part of a youth’s suffering. When children experience trauma, it affects how their brain grows. For example, experiences like abuse and neglect can slow or delay development of the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that governs problem solving, judgment, impulse control, empathy, and appropriate social and sexual behavior. As a result, children with severe trauma can instead live in a “survival mode” governed by their amygdala, the portion of the brain responsible for survival instincts and emotions. For a youth working from this portion of their brain, asking them to make good choices or take responsibility for their actions is impossible until they can develop and grow. They may react in a way that satisfies the adults around them, but that is compliance. They are learning what to say or do to get along or “survive”. This does not mean they are making the changes they need to be successful in the community.
The good news is that a teenager’s brain is elastic. Professionals trained in Trauma-informed corrections can actually help young people develop higher level thinking skills by first focusing on their ability to regulate their emotions and behaviors. This involves helping them feel physically and emotionally safe, building appropriate trusting relationships, and teaching them to learn self-regulation. We may not solve all of their problems while they are under our care in TJJD, but if we can help them develop, we help them to be forever able to better regulate their own behavior by identifying their own triggers. That, in turn, will allow them to react to stressful situations in more appropriate ways and make better decisions overall.
How do we know that this approach applies to the youth in our system? Our staff understands the implications of “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs, and how they the behavior of youth and adults. There are 10 total ACEs:
- Physical abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Violence in the home
- Incarcerated family members
- Family substance abuse
- Family mental illness
- Divorced or separated parents
The number of ACEs a person has is a key predictor of life outcomes. A person with four or more typically has major health issues and severe behavioral problems. The fact is that almost all of our youth in our care have experienced childhood trauma, but a conservative estimate suggests that 45% have four or more ACEs, 3.5 times more than the average person.
As daunting as that figure is, it means that the TJJD staff have an exciting opportunity to be the people who help our youth begin to build a bridge from trauma to recovery. In doing so, we can provide them with the opportunity to lead fuller, more productive lives for themselves and for their own families.
Want to learn more? Here are some resources to help:
- Learning your own ACEs score may help you to put it into perspective and determine if you have triggers of your own. https://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/
- These videos help explain the science and history of trauma-informed care.
- This video sets out the science and talks about health outcomes. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris | How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime
- This video talks more about the behavioral aspects of ACEs. Dr. Allison Jackson | A Call to Connection: Making Childhood Trauma Personal
- This video provides an overview of Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) a core trauma-informed methodology. TBRI Overview
- This video is a preview of a longer video related to teens and TBRI. TBRI Overview for Teens: Preview
Roles and Responsibilities
Everyone plays a part and all are important. But the people who are closest to the youth are the ones who have the most impact. They are the true caregivers. We all work together, in our separate roles but in the same direction for the same goals.
Coaches. These are our protectors. Their central role of our Youth Development Coaches is to provide for a safe environment. This means maintaining a balance of structure and nurture/encouragement, holding youth accountable in the moment and in ways that help them correct the behavior for the future. To do that, coaches must understand the youth in their care, be vigilant to identify escalating behavior early, provide for an environment of playful engagement, and keep their youth safe whether in a group or alone in their rooms.
Case Managers. These are our guides. Their central role is to be advocates for our youth and guide them through. They make sure that kids understand what is happening to them, the path out of TJJD, and speak up or them when they need help, have a success to celebrate, or are ready for a new challenge.
Mental health staff. Our mental health staff members serve in a support role to make sure that our kids get the assessments they need, that their case plans are just right for them, and that they get the personal and group therapy they need. They ensure that the team has the tools it needs to implement the case plan.
Other supporters. Our educators, volunteers, other TJJD staff, and anyone who spends time with our kids has a role to engage in trauma-informed care with a compassionate heart. It is the job of administration and central office to clear obstacles and support the most important members of the TJJD team, the people who work directly with the youth.
How we interact with our youth is central to their time in our care and provides the best opportunity for them to be prepared to return to their communities.
Connecting builds trust and grows felt safety.
- Trust. Trusting relationships are important to all of us. Many youth have not had them.
- Connection. That first positive connection to another person can be life changing. We can connect with them and teach them how to have boundaries.
- Lighthearted engagement. An environment based in positive engagement is one where perceived threats are lower.
- Meeting needs. Giving youth a voice and seeking to learn and meet their needs builds trust and connection and helps them feel safer.
Correcting behavior is our primary goal. It is more effective with trust and connection
- Proactive correction. We correct behavior proactively when we teach social skills and when we offer them a level of power by giving them choices, compromises, and a role in the decision-making processes.
- Responsive correction. We correct behavior responsively when the youth’s behavior becomes challenging and we need to engage in an immediate and direct response.
- Behavior focused. Responses must be leveled at the behavior, not the youth.
- Catching it low. With connection comes an ability to see when a youth is about to “flip their lid”. If we “catch it low" and intervene in the right way, everyone is safer and the youth learn more from the experience.
Empowering youth gives them some control so that they can practice regulation and decision making
- Meet needs. We empower youth when we make sure to meet their physical, sensory, and activity needs.
- Predictability. Keeping predictable schedules and managing transitions through communication helps them to regulate.
- Help them learn decision-making. Youth need to have some power over themselves and to learn how to make good decisions. Give them opportunities to weigh in on activities or flexible schedule items.
- Teach communication and compromise. Allow youth to ask for a compromise, where possible.
- Co-regulate. Help the youth learn different ways to regulate their reactions to emotions and stress by doing the exercises along with them.
- Don’t demand compliance for the sake of compliance. Demanding compliance when it is not needed for safety takes away from trust and can cause power struggles that can lead to dangerous situations