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Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse

Keyword: juvenile justice

On June 1, 2018 Dr. Rebecca Fix, assistant scientist at the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, was invited to attend a workshop led by staff from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) including Caren Harp, JD, administrator and TeNeane Bradford, PhD, associate administrator of the core protections division. OJJDP’s mission is to provide national leadership, coordination and resources to prevent and respond to juvenile delinquency and victimization.

The workshop was held onsite at OJJDP in Washington, D.C. It was led by Ms. Harp, and several key staff from OJJDP attended, as did juvenile justice stakeholders from several U.S. states. The purpose of the workshop was to gather professionals to focus on the core requirements of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (JJDP) Act. The Act was originally established in 1974 and is based on a broad consensus that children, youth and families involved with the juvenile and criminal courts should be guarded by federal standards for care and custody, while also upholding the interests of community safety and the prevention of victimization.

OJJDP is particularly interested in addressing the fourth requirement of the JJDP Act, which focuses on reducing the disproportionate number of juvenile members of racial/ethnic minority groups who come into contact with the juvenile justice system.

“The group was asked to generate ideas about what OJJDP can do to assist states in complying with requirements associated with the JJDP Act. I was invited because Dr. Bradford read a blog post I wrote for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, and they felt I gave the topic a ‘fresh perspective’ that they hoped to integrate into their work on the JJDP Act,” says Dr. Fix.

In her post, Dr. Fix argues for ways to reduce racial/ethnic minority contact that include interventions at the national, state and community level.

“I was primarily invited to bring the research perspective to the group and to serve as new eyes on the problem,” says Dr. Fix.

The group aims to get together regularly to further this work and assist states in meeting the core requirements of the JJDP Act, particularly the requirement to reduce disproportionate minority contact. The outcomes of the conference were recently released publicly, and the group hopes to make positive changes that would affect all U.S. states and territories.

Age of OpportunityAre you raising a pre-teen or teen? Do you work or interact with these special beings?  If so, I highly recommend reading Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence by Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Temple University and a leading expert in adolescent brain development, risk-taking and decision-making behaviors.  With this wonderfully written book, Steinberg synthesizes the research on adolescents and distills it into actionable recommendations for parents and for reforming our high schools and juvenile justice systems. This book provides a brilliant analysis of why kids behave the way they do, and why we as parents and community members need to ensure the love, support and scaffolding kids need in order to not only stay safe but to thrive. 

Dr. Steinberg’s basic premise is that “adolescence now lasts longer than ever, and the adolescent brain is surprisingly malleable. These new discoveries make this time of life crucial in determining a person’s ultimate success and happiness.”  Many of us recognize the importance of the early years (zero to three) for cognitive development, but adolescence is another time when brain development ramps up.

In particular, Steinberg argues that teens are wired to take risks, are more sensitive to rewards, and are less inhibited.  Moreover, their self-regulation skills have a “now you see it, now you don’t” quality that so many of us have witnessed in ourselves and in our own kids.  In a structured, supervised setting, this combination of qualities can propel adolescents to greater achievement – making them more likely to take riskier, harder courses at school or to take on challenging extracurricular activities.  But in an unstructured, unsupervised setting - such as those hours that fall between the end of school day and the end of parents’ workday - this combination of qualities is a recipe for disaster. 

During unstructured, unmonitored time, some youth will engage in sexual behaviors and some of those behaviors will be developmentally inappropriate or even illegal.  Apart from the qualities Steinberg notes, youth also receive little in the way of helpful instruction around healthy sexual behavior.  For example, how many of you have explicitly told your pre-teens and teens that they should never touch a younger child’s penis or vagina?  We rarely provide this type of information, assuming that twelve, thirteen and fourteen year olds somehow know better.  They don’t, and that ignorance, combined with the strong pull of sexual desire, insufficient self-regulation, and insufficient adult monitoring leads to many youth engaging in exactly this type of behavior.  They then face juvenile (and sometimes adult) adjudication and severe post-adjudication consequences like lifetime, public sex offender registration. 

Keeping low-risk youth out of the juvenile justice system by ensuring that they never engage in illegal sexual behavior with younger children is the aim of one of our Center’s research project, in which we hope to develop a universal prevention program targeting young adolescent boys and their parents. For more information about this and other research projects, please visit our website.

Our goal with this and all our projects is to develop a culture of prevention so that, ultimately, fewer children are victimized and fewer youth face life-altering consequences for harmful but often transient and certainly preventable behaviors. It is up to all of us to make sure all our children are given every chance to reach their full potential.