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Psychology expert conveys essential elements of child trauma recovery in the juvenile justice system during UH Law Center webinar

 Professor Trina Junes

Dr. Megan Mooney served at a recent University of Houston Law Center continuing legal education session, "“The Essential Elements of a Trauma-Informed Juvenile Justice System.”

March 11, 2021 – Baylor College of Medicine Clinical Assistant Professor Megan A. Mooney relayed practical ways to support healing and recovery from the adverse effects of childhood trauma in her virtual presentation, “The Essential Elements of a Trauma-Informed Juvenile Justice System” hosted by the University of Houston Law Center’s Juvenile and Children's Advocacy Project (JCAP). The event included more than 120 attendees.

“Trauma is essentially not being in control of bad things that have happened to us,” Mooney said. “These things happen and are forced upon our body; we don’t get any sense of control.”

The majority of children in the juvenile justice system setting have experienced some form of trauma, neglect or maltreatment. JCAP’s mission is to reduce juvenile crime and delinquency, and to improve the long-term educational success rates and life outcomes for socially and economically disadvantaged youth by disrupting the school to prison, or community to prison pipeline through the provision of legal, educational, and social support services. JCAP works toward this mission through three primary programs: direct representation for dual-status youth in the juvenile justice, criminal justice and child welfare systems, juvenile record sealing, and education rights representation.

“Healing occurs within relationships,” Mooney said. “We in our connections to young people have the capacity to be healing agents in whatever role that maybe be, and without those relationships, children or adults cannot heal.

“If you have five, 10 years of trauma, it might take that long to rebuild new brain connection. It will take months for me to establish a safe relationship therapeutically, months to help them express what’s going on and months of coping skill building.”

 Professor Trina Junes

Traumatic childhood experiences can make trusting others an extremely complex issue, leading to anxiety and toxic stress, and without help or positive reinforcement, children are left feeling isolated, unable to form healthy relationships or in a perpetual re-enactment of their childhood trauma.

“Children are smart to be wary of relationships,” Mooney said. “It is a protective factor for them to not trust us at face value, and for us to have to earn that trust and respect because they have been hurt by people in the past who should not have done that.”

Mooney added that demographic groups such as LGBTQ+, minority or marginalized ethnicities, those with military backgrounds or with limited intellectual and developmental abilities experience trauma at disproportionate rates compared to other children, setting a trajectory for disrupted developmental processes and an increased vulnerability to future traumatic exposure.

She continued that fostering hope and a positive outlook is key to juvenile emotional recovery. This stems from a foundation of safety, accountability and predictability, providing a transparency and trustworthiness that enforces an awareness of safety and helps the child regain a sense of self-worth, believing in themselves and their abilities.

Mooney is an affiliate member of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, adjunct assistant professor at UTHealth Sciences Center at Houston and a licensed psychologist.

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