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Complex Trauma and Aggression in Secure Juvenile Justice Settings

Julian D. Ford, John Chapman, Daniel F. Connor & Keith R. Cruise

Criminal Justice & Behavior; June 2012 vol. 39 no. 6 694-724



Youth in secure juvenile justice settings (e.g., detention, incarceration) often have histories of complex trauma: exposure to traumatic stressors including polyvictimization, life-threatening accidents or disasters, and interpersonal losses. Complex trauma adversely affects early childhood biopsychosocial development and attachment bonding, placing the youth at risk for a range of serious problems (e.g., depression, anxiety, oppositional defiance, risk taking, substance abuse) that may lead to reactive aggression. Complex trauma is associated with an extremely problematic combination of persistently diminished adaptive arousal reactions, episodic maladaptive hyperarousal, impaired information processing and impulse control, self-critical and aggression-endorsing cognitive schemas, and peer relationships that model and reinforce disinhibited reactions, maladaptive ways of thinking, and aggressive, antisocial, and delinquent behaviors. This constellation of problems poses significant challenges for management, rehabilitation, and treatment of youth in secure justice settings. Epidemiological and clinical evidence of the prevalence, impact on development and functioning, comorbidity, and adverse outcomes in adolescence of exposure to complex trauma are reviewed. Implications for milieu management, screening, assessment, and treatment of youth who have complex trauma histories and problems with aggression in secure juvenile justice settings are discussed, with directions for future research and program development.



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