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Responding to girls with PTSD.

My post-traumatic stress disorder group meant a lot to me- When I first started I did not feel comfortable talking about my problem. I started by talking a little, and then it was like the more I talked the more I was getting better! To me, post-traumatic stress disorder is not only about being a victim. It's about how you overcome that fear and move on with your life, and stop staying in the past. I loved the no breaking confidentiality rule--it made me feel safe. That meant that when group started I could say what I felt, act like myself and speak about the things I normally keep secret. We made our own rules for group that we absolutely had to follow. We finally had someone to listen to us and give us advice on how to deal with our stress and trauma. I talked about things I never thought I would! (From a letter written by Danielle, a participant in a group run by Alternative Rehabilitation Communities Inc. in Harrisburg, Pa.)

One of the most critical needs of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Juvenile Justice Services is the creation of gender-specific services for girls who have been adjudicated delinquent. Though the issue of services for these girls is a national one--the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) identified this issue as a national priority--the need in Pennsylvania becomes even more apparent when juvenile court statistics are examined. In 2006, the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges Commission reported that 23.9 percent of the dispositions in Pennsylvania juvenile courts were young women. Placements in residential treatment programs occurred in 12.5 percent of these dispositions.

Young women like Danielle who are placed in residential treatment programs face specific problems not encountered by young men. One of the major problems is finding appropriate services. Given that fewer adolescent females are placed compared to adolescent males, girls often spend extended periods of time in juvenile detention facilities waiting for residential placement. Because residential services for females are limited, girls are usually placed in programs with other girls facing a wide variety of behavioral, emotional, intellectual and mental health issues. In contrast, the spectrum of services for adolescent males is more fully developed, allowing juvenile courts to secure services tailored to boys who require specific treatment for mental health, sexual offenses, conduct disorders and lower intellectual functioning.

The common thread among many of the young women in these facilities is post-traumatic stress disorder. Regardless of the issues that brought them into the juvenile justice system, many of these girls have experienced trauma of some kind and/or emotional, physical or sexual abuse and are dealing with the resulting issues.

Abuse of children is recognized as a major social problem. Reports in 2006 from OJJDP and the National Center for Juvenile Justice indicate that from 1993-2003, children had a 2.5 times greater chance of being victims of rape or sexual assault than adults. With the layering of emotional and physical abuse on top of sexual abuse issues, it is not hard to understand why so many girls placed in residential programs experience post-traumatic stress disorder. The issues of family and community violence only add to the amount of trauma experienced by many of the young women who enter the juvenile justice system.

To respond to their needs, Pennsylvania has created a curriculum on post-traumatic stress disorder. The 15-week curriculum is based on cognitive-behavioral therapy, and is designed to inform young women about specific symptoms of the disorder and help them identify and cope with their personal symptoms. Information on post-traumatic stress disorder is imparted through reading material, videotapes, handouts, and mini training topics for each new lesson. Students are also assigned homework such as worksheets, relaxation practice, recording thoughts and sand art projects. Each lesson allows for periods of discussion and peer support. The classes are held weekly in sessions lasting from one to one and a half hours. They are facilitated in group settings of four to six youths, and two certified facilitators are required to provide the treatment.

As the students learn about posttraumatic stress disorder, talk about their personal experiences and listen to the stories of trauma from their peers, they may experience an increase of symptoms, such as flashbacks, nightmares, dissociation, avoidance and numbing of feelings. Because of this, flexibility has been built into the program to allow group leaders to structure a Problem-Solving Mutual Support Group between group lessons. Post-traumatic stress disorder groups have been offered throughout the state in more than 50 residential facilities since the curriculum's development in 2000. The curriculum training is offered throughout the year.

Deborah Ciocco, MA, is a probation officer with the Westmoreland Juvenile Court; and the project coordinator for the Pennsylvania Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Project. Please contact her at for more information on this and other free trainings provided for professionals.
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Title Annotation:Juvenile Justice News; post-traumatic stress disorder
Author:Ciocco, Deborah
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1U2PA
Date:Apr 1, 2010
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