On the surface, the problem of juvenile crime can seem overwhelming. The sheer scope of it — millions of lives, billions of dollars, a vast range of adverse effects on individuals, families, and society — where to begin?

I find it helps to divide it into three distinct but interrelated sub-problems, based on principal barriers to change. In other words, what’s likely to make the criminal activity difficult to eradicate?

Barriers to Addressing Juvenile Crime

First, there’s the environment that surrounds the kid. That could mean a neighborhood rife with crime, or involvement with a gang or peer culture that rewards or glamorizes outlaw behavior. It could mean serious problems within the family itself — up to and including other family members who are involved in crime.

When the kid is removed from this environment, and placed in a better one, behavior seems to improve quickly. Conversely, when the kid is returned to the home or family, the behavior re-emerges. So we might call it a ‘criminogenic’ environment.

Second, it’s common for change to be hampered by untreated (or undertreated) drug abuse or addiction, or possibly a mood or anxiety disorder. Once again, where treatment of this disorder is successful, there’s a clear reduction in criminal activity.

Third, there’s crime that reflects a conduct disorder. When conduct disorder is appropriately addressed (usually through some type of motivation and behavior modification), criminal activity decreases.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of cases where the lines blur or we find ourselves dealing with more than one of the above barriers. Still, if we can identify and adequately address those barriers, we increase the chance of a good outcome.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t often happen. Our systems tend to be a bit like the man with a hammer, to whom everything looks like a nail. It isn’t so much that we can’t address these barriers, it’s that all too often, we don’t, because we find ourselves in a situation where we lack access to the appropriate tools.

That’s where planning comes in. I imagine if you surveyed a legion of case managers as to whether they felt their ‘toolbox’ was adequate to meet the requirements of the job, you’d hear a resounding ‘NO!’ That would be true for clinicians from juvenile justice, adolescent healthcare, family services — pretty much every setting where you regularly come into contact with troubled kids and their families. You’re always searching for tools that somebody forgot to provide.

In other articles, we’ll explore some of those barriers to successful outcomes and see if we can’t begin to form a picture of what that case manager’s ‘toolbox’ should look like.

See Also: Treating the Juvenile Offender

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