Christine Gerchow, Ph.D., delivers address at Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ) Annual Conference in Washington, D.C.
In June 2019, Christine Gerchow, Ph.D., presented at the Annual Conference for the Coalition on Juvenile Justice (CJJ) in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Gerchow presented about the psychophysiologic interventions she provided for youth incarcerated at John A. Davis Juvenile Hall (Contra Costa County). She organized her presentation around Dr. Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT).
Here are Dr. Gerchow’s opening remarks:
It’s almost dinner time and you have likely spent much of the day attending presentations and seminars.
Your attention might be waning.
3,000 miles away at the JH where I work in the San Francisco Bay Area, it will eventually be 4:00pm. About thirty young men and 10-15 young women, wearing tan and purple shirts, respectively, are sitting in large units, decorated with faint yellow paint; lit well by daylight streaming through large windows or, during the evening, fluorescent lights. Art created during weekend “paint night” decorates the walls. You hear basketballs bounce, TV air reality or athletic programs, and banter emanate from Dominoes games.
The youth range in age from 14-19. They come from Richmond, Oakland, Pittsburg and Antioch. They’re sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends. They play basketball, write music, paint and sketch…They love to make spreads; crack jokes and engage in roasts.
The unit is managed by four juvenile institution officers, some of whom have backgrounds in behavioral health training. Each young person is assigned to one of these institution officers who becomes their “counselor.”
If time, transportation and probation policies allow, the youth see their families once per week, albeit after they and their visitors have cleared metal detectors.
The youth were committed to treatment programs because of their charges or the chronicity of probation violations.
A hallmark of the treatment program is…you guessed it… treatment classes. At our juvenile hall, as with others, the treatment classes are often focused, even entirely, on cognitive behavioral therapy.
Today, I am going to share with you a class I developed to compliment the cognitive behavior approach.
Before I discuss the class, I want to provide some context……
I want you to try to imagine you’re in a juvenile hall.
You are living with, eating with, playing with, sharing phones with and learning with the same group of people, for months at a time.
Before entering into custody, you may have experienced or witnessed, or witnessed and experienced events that threatened you with death or serious injury or threatened others with death or serious injury. During these events you may have felt horror or a total loss of control. You may have lost trust in others. You may have experienced these events once, twice, or throughout most of your life.
You may have experienced being removed from your home and living in a group home, foster home or institutional setting.
You may have experienced “being Black on the daily” as one 17-year-old succinctly reflected when considering life’s strains and stressors. (For more on the topic of radicalized trauma, I recommend reading Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands).
Sitting beside you in the treatment class are peers who may have also experienced some or all of these traumas. A handful (or more!) of these peers may not like you, in a deep way, possibly because of things you did and possibly because of things you had nothing to do with. You carry yourself in a way that’s enough to communicate security and fearlessness, but just short of communicating aggression…unless someone squares up…that could change everything.
As part of your class, you need to complete readings; memorize steps of an anger control cycle; apply the steps to your life; and rehearse the cycle in front of the group. All the while, your body may house a massive amount of stress—from the past, during the present, and about the future.
Your jaw is tight, your stomach twitches, your heart rate feels fast. Your hands are clammy and your mind wanders, oftentimes to distant places (with smells, visuals and cues that take you back to places you’d rather not remember but can’t seem to forget).
Mind moves 100 miles an hour. Memories flood. Relaxation eludes. Focus feels impossible.
In spite of what you’ve survived…the pain you’ve felt, the stress your body feels…within you lies depths of potential. You don’t want your potential and talent to be eclipsed by your struggle, your suffering or by your status as a resident at juvenile hall.
You have been told that just as trauma can be passed intergenerationally, so too can resilience of mind and body!
When you look in the mirror, you notice the juvenile hall logo at the upper left corner of your shirt. Is this me, you ask? Am I becoming part of the system? One moment you feel disdain. The next moment you experience resolve—this is your life…there are few options to get out. Still in other moments, you want to fight the label and emerge free from the system’s shackles, literal and metaphorical. You can do this. You are NOT THIS.
Suddenly you feel your heart race. A door slams. Your jaw tightens and your stomach feels topsy turvy. Once again… your thinking is interrupted by your body’s messages – tension, tautness, tightness, can’t get the full breath, jaw locked…you don’t feel safe in your own body. Your thinking, your fleeting moments of inspiration + clarity hijacked by your body’s memories and the physical messages and sensations tied to those memories. It really is just the way that Dr. Bessel van der Kolk said it, “the body keeps the score.”
But you’ve got your Anger Control class and you need to memorize the anger control cycle steps…got to rehearse the cycle…somehow got to absorb what is being taught…
As a psychologist, it is easy for me to get trapped into thinking that healing trauma occurs in a “session” (a) facilitated by someone with specific academic credentials and (b) governed by rather formulaic rubrics aimed at cognitive coping and affect modulation.
But science, anthropology, and centuries-old cultural and spiritual practices, along with the young men at Contra Costa County’s Juvenile Hall, among other sources, tell us that trauma is of the mind AND body. Trauma, as Resmaa Menakem says, is a soul wound that can be healed.
Yet for some reason, we don’t think about the body or the soul as the course for inspiration and healing.
After facilitating several hundred sessions of psychotherapy at juvenile hall…after co-teaching the cognitive behavior treatment classes and after conducting dissertation research about the effectiveness of Aggression Replacement Training (ART) and Thinking for Change (T4C) – I could no longer ignore the fact that some of our youth entered into our evidence-based treatment classes psychophysiologically drained and possibly unable to fully absorb the classes’ content.
I started to wonder if there was too much reliance on COGNITIVE processing and not enough on somatic treatments to help our youth feel safe in their own skin, feel more aware of and in control of their bodies’ sensations—– through the use of posture, gesture, aromatherapy, temperature, breathing, and touch…
So here I am, today, at the CJJ Annual conference, to share with you about our juvenile hall’s Mindfulness, Mindlessness and Meditation group—a group that at long last provides our youth with time to rest, to feel safe in their bodies, and to increase their capacity to participate more fully in the evidence-based classes that demand stillness and attention from their bodies and minds.
I will share with you the why (why did I start the group?); the what (what did we do in the group?) and the how (how did we pull this off in a maximum security detention setting)? Intermixed, we will engage in relaxation activities, some of which are the very same activities we used in group!
And have no fear, unlike the youth, you will not be required memorize or publically rehearse. So, let’s get after it.
Acknowledgments: Dr. Gerchow’s work would not be possible without the support of the Contra Costa County Department of Probation, particularly staff from the Cypress (Youthful Offender Treatment Program) and Shasta (Girls In Motion) units.