Why Do Some Kids End Up In the Juvenile Justice System? An Interview with Martha Stone

October 6, 2011

Did you know it is National Mental Health Awareness week? As children’s mental health is one of our priority areas, we wanted to take this opportunity to feature one of our grantees working in the area of mental health. The Center for Children’s Advocacy’s (CCA) mission is to improve the child welfare, juvenile justice, health and education systems’ responsiveness to the needs of poor children by 1) providing holistic legal services to poor children in their communities and 2) improving legal representation of poor children.

CCA currently has a grant from us to explore early indicators of mental health issues in school. Specifically, they are evaluating the school records of their clients who are 12-14 years old to uncover whether there was early evidence of mental health issues. CCA uses what it learns from direct client  representation to also work to change the practices of systems as evidenced through this project.

I interviewed Martha Stone, Executive Director of CCA, to learn more.

Jenn: How will your research further the early identification of mental health issues in children?

Martha: What’s really important about this grant is that very few, if any, researchers get to look at educational records from students longitudinally. We’re noticing in the research that there are missed identifiers as early as kindergarten through second grade.

Examples of identifiers include multiple social promotions (when children are promoted to the next grade level despite failing grades), exit from bilingual services without parental permission, repeated calls to parent or grandparent to “pick the child up early” from school because of misbehavior, or multiple “child find” violations (when poor attendance, misbehavior, or low academic performance requires a referral to a formal special education process mandated by state and federal law).  Unfortunately, these children aren’t identified as needing special education until it’s almost too late, after they’ve had, say, seven years of failing education that hasn’t met their needs.

The three most common behavioral health and psychiatric diagnoses we’re seeing are depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from violence in the children’s communities and in their families. We’re going through these records and seeing that a member of the child’s family was shot, or incarcerated, or a cousin died from gunshot wounds, and there’s no other notation about this in the files. No referrals, no interventions. Then the behaviors show up later on, and they’re never tied back to the early flags.

We plan to use this data to encourage earlier interventions. There needs to be closer collaboration between teachers and school-based health centers, and greater utilization of these centers, particularly if mental health services are attached.

Jenn: What have you learned so far?

Martha: How prevalent the depression is. I don’t think we thought there would be as much documentation of depression in early grades as we’re seeing in some of the educational records now. We’re also seeing that while kids appear resilient in the face of the violence initially,  there are  behavioral manifestations that show that kids are more vulnerable than they appear on the surface, and which impede academic progress.

Educators are not really equipped to identify or deal with some of these issues. Increased education about the red flags and actions to take in the face of them early on would be important.    Another issue we see constantly that contributes to failure is mobility. Many of the children change schools often. When there’s no record of these occurrences and no follow-through, then that child falls through the cracks.

Jenn: What do you see as next steps?

Martha: We’re planning to look at best practices around the country, and propose legislative remedies in Connecticut to address some of the issues we are seeing. Administrative remedies will include working with a school system to educate them on our findings.

8 Responses to Why Do Some Kids End Up In the Juvenile Justice System? An Interview with Martha Stone

  1. m ary lamberti says:

    Do you have any information about 13 year old boys and marijuana use?

  2. Lina Paredes says:

    The research Martha Stone and her team at CCA are doing is so important for making the case for early identification and intervention of children’s mental health issues – keep up the good work!

  3. Tiana Hercules says:


    This is very interesting. CCA is a great organization and I admire all of the good work they do. I am very astonished at the high prevalence of depression in children at this early of an age. And even as a parent I have never correlated depression with disruption in the school. But in light of how violence in families’ impacts adults it should seem logical that it would have such an impact on children who are not yet equipped to process this; especially when violence takes the life of a young relative.

    My biggest concern here is how are we to draw a direct or any correlation between depression and the outward acts of aggression and negative behaviors that children who end up in the social justice system so often exhibit. This would require a stark change in the thinking of many clinicians. At least my limited understanding of depression is that it does not usually manifest in this type of behavior but more so we see depressed individuals withdraw from society rather than rebel against it. Does this simply mean we do not know enough about depression in the very young? This may very well be the case. My other concern is that this may create a market for money hungry rx drug companies to now target younger children; where we already see a high number of teens being prescribed antidepressants and other behavior modifying drugs.

    I will be interested in the proposals that come from this research especially alternatives to medication

    • chf_admin says:

      Hi Tiana,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. You raise some excellent questions that certainly we – and others – are thinking about. When it comes to how depression manifests in young children, I wanted to find some specific articles for you, and I’m still working on doing that. Actually, answering your question has been something of a team effort here within the foundation – another blog post might come from this! (but no promises)

      As for your concern about rx companies, the foundation doesn’t have a stance on that issue, and it’s definitely a conversation we’re aware of. Program Officer Ben Rodriguez suggested that I point you to CHDI’s latest publication http://www.chdi.org/impact-pediatric.psychopharm

      If you have more questions, don’t hesitate to contact us via the contact form.


    • Tiana, we agree that the manifestations of depression are often not recognized as signs of a child’s mental health struggles. But the symptoms of childhood depression identified by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry include extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure; increased irritability, anger, or hostility; difficulty with relationships; and frequent absences from school or poor performance in school; as well as many of the symptoms more frequently associated with depression such as lethargy, social isolation and frequent sadness. As we know from our own data, many of these students are suffering from school failure, occasions of which (or the fear of failure) trigger extreme outbursts in some and reinforce each other – e.g. absence from school exacerbates failure, which in turn makes anger and frustration worse. In a significant number of cases, language and learning disabilities intensify the problem still further, and are often masked by acting out behavior. It all speaks to the need to do a careful evaluation of children exhibiting these problems and institute a multi-faceted, interrelated system of supports for these children in school and at home. By catching these warning signs before a student has experienced years of school failure, we believe more moderate interventions can be successful, promote a student’s academic progress and prevent the student’s involvement in the juvenile justice system.

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