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Defending Childhood Shelby Improving Landscape for Shelby County Youth

“I’ve visited prisons where generations of a family are in prison together,” Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said in opening remarks to the Trauma Informed Care Summit at UTHSC. Defending Childhood Shelby is working to change this picture. (Photo by Jackie Denton/UTHSC)

Local leaders, youth services providers, health care professionals, and law enforcement personnel came together in the spirit of collaboration toward the goal of improving the lives of children in Shelby County during a Trauma Informed Care Summit at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

The summit was hosted by Defending Childhood Shelby, a federally funded initiative that has been instrumental in encouraging and supporting child service agencies, in particular the juvenile justice system, to become more informed about and responsive to the long-lasting results of childhood exposure to violence and trauma.

The direction of Defending Childhood Shelby transferred from the Shelby County government to UTHSC last year. The university will administer the initiative through its Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth. As the initial federal grant for the program concludes, Defending Childhood Shelby brought its partners together to discuss their successes and plot a course for the future.

Altha Stewart, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and director of UTHSC’s Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth, said she is encouraged by the show of support and commitment from all the agencies represented. Among them were Agape Child & Family Services, Family Safety Center, Heal the Hood Foundation of Memphis, Memphis Child Advocacy Center, and the Memphis and Shelby County Juvenile Court.

The summit discussed best practices in assessment, treatment, support, and sustainability of programs to help keep young people out of the justice system and on track for success in the future.

Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy in Washington, D.C., said Shelby County has made strides through the work of Defending Childhood Shelby and its partners to improve the landscape for children affected by trauma and violence, but there is more work to do.

Historically, the juvenile justice system across the country been known for inflicting trauma on children by locking up those whose offenses are more misbehavior than threat to society, he said. “Young people getting unnecessarily swept into the juvenile justice system for truancy or being beyond their parents control are not a threat to society. Once they go into detention, they become more likely to go deeper into the juvenile justice system,” he said.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s opening remarks pointed out the revolving door that incarceration of juveniles can set in motion. “I’ve visited prisons where generations of a family are in prison together,” he said. “Where father and son are sharing the same prison cell.”

Soler said the solution is in reducing unnecessary detention, ending solitary confinement for all but the most dangerous cases, and providing alternative programs that provide a way out of detention for children who are not a threat to society.

The picture is improving in Shelby County. “There is a mindset that we don’t want to lock kids up, we don’t want to get kids in a formal system if they don’t need to be,” Soler said.

“You are finishing the first phase of the Defending Childhood initiative, but there is work to do,” he said. “In this city are children who are talented, resourceful, and resilient. Your continuing work in Defending Childhood will continue to enable them to grow.