Good mental health is as fundamental as good physical health in helping children succeed and reach their full potential. Unmet mental health needs can impact the long-term economic mobility and quality of life of children and their families. This can often result in dependency, costly institutionalization or recurrent involvement in the criminal justice system.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are strongly correlated to a wide range of mental problems in children. ACEs include but aren’t limited to poverty, physical or sexual abuse, and neglect; violence at home, school or in the community, and family hardships such as parental incarceration. Research found exposure to multiple ACEs increases the chance for involvement in child welfare, juvenile justice and behavioral health systems.
Florida’s KIDS COUNT report provides data on the intersection of mental health and juvenile justice. Children and youth who have experienced high levels of trauma find themselves caught up in both systems. According to Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice, 32.9 percent of all youth in custody have a history of mental health problems. For girls, these numbers are disproportionately higher, with 48.8 percent of girls in custody having experienced mental health issues. While juvenile arrests in Florida are at a 43-year low as a result of a focus on prevention and diversion, Baker Acts in Florida (involuntary mental health examinations for children) have increased more than 49 percent over the past eight years. As these systems often overlap, we must ensure that the services in the community are available and responsive to the needs of young people and their families.
In 2018, nearly 3,000 girls between the ages of 12 and 18 came to Pace Center for Girls seeking to live a healthy life, succeed in school and stay out of the juvenile justice system. In every case, persistent trauma had a profound impact on their behavior and academics. One-quarter of those who came to Pace had prior involvement with the juvenile justice system and more than one-third had been expelled from school.
Brook, a high school sophomore, was sexually assaulted by a student at her public school. She started skipping school to avoid her attacker; as a result, she failed most of her classes and dropped out. Eventually, her trauma led to self-harm and thoughts of suicide. For girls like Brook, adversity and danger are constant forces in their lives. Over time, a fight-or-flight reaction crowds out the ability to make reasonable decisions and form healthy relationships, and can lead to physical health issues, such as an increased risk of heart disease or other known effects of chronic stress.
It is vital for schools to be physically and emotionally safe environments and to provide comprehensive services to address the needs and challenges facing girls like Brook. At Pace Center for Girls, we create safe and gender-responsive environments while providing extensive counseling and trauma-informed services to girls and young women. By doing this, we harness the unique potential of each girl with a focus on their future.
After only 13 months at Pace Center for Girls, Brook completed two full years of high school and graduated at age 16. Today, she is enrolled in college and pursuing a veterinary technician certification.
A recent study done by MDRC, a nonpartisan education and social policy research organization, found that Pace reaches girls facing enormous challenges and nearly doubles their likelihood of being on track to graduate from high school. Graduating from high school and earning a diploma are vital; doing so leads to better job opportunities and higher pay. Based on statistics gathered by the United States Department of Labor, the median weekly pay of those with a high school diploma is almost $300 more than those with no high school diploma.
Girls across the nation and from a variety of backgrounds experience trauma that has a profound impact on their behavior and mental health. For more than 30 years, Pace Center for Girls has worked with state legislators to change systems and policies that are barriers to girls’ success in the areas of education, human trafficking, mental health and juvenile justice in Florida. A great deal has been accomplished, but there’s more work to be done and we encourage ongoing partnerships with our leaders and elected officials to address these critical needs.
Marx is president and CEO of Jacksonville’s Pace Center for Girls.