Researcher says we need a radical shift in youth justice services

Denise Brend: ‘Remaking our current systems to be trauma-informed is an essential step toward promoting meaningful change’

Denise Brend is calling for a radical shift toward trauma-informed care in youth justice services in Canada.

Brend, assistant professor in Concordia’s Department of Applied Human Sciences, has a background in community activism and social work. She says she has witnessed the many social and systemic barriers that youth and those who work with them face.

“This came into sharper relief after my 15 years of training residential youth care workers,” she notes.

“Each year, I met students who were motivated to offer the best care possible to vulnerable children and youth. Yet the statistics told a different story – neither the youth nor the care workers were flourishing. This fuelled my interest in trying to understand the processes that led to suffering within systems purporting to alleviate it.”

To that end, Brend is engaged in multiple research initiatives. She is a co-researcher on the federal project entitled the Canadian Consortium on Child and Youth Trauma. Its mission is to unify and enhance social responses to child and youth trauma through advancements in research, practice, policy and law.

In addition, she published her original study, “Residential childcare workers in child welfare and moral distress” in the December 2020 issue of Children and Youth Services Review. In addition, she co-wrote “Time to Shift the Canadian Paradigm: Youth Justice Services and Trauma-Informed Care” in the Canadian Criminal Justice Association’s Justice Report with Delphine Collin-Vézina, a professor at McGill University.

Smiling woman with long blonde hair.Denise Brend: “Much of the distress is related to issues with the functioning of the youth justice system itself.”

Toward a more expansive definition of trauma

Brend says that while she expected to uncover evidence of traumatic events and distress in the child welfare system, one aspect of this research surprised her.

“What I found was that much of the distress was not related to the potentially traumatic events that these residential care workers heard about or experienced with the children, youth and their families – it was related to issues with the functioning of the youth protection/youth justice system itself.”

In her view, a systems-level shift is necessary.

“It is well-established that helping professionals, who are routinely exposed to the trauma of children and youth, are at risk of the harmful impacts of post-traumatic stress. And post-traumatic stress can impair people’s capacity to engage in helping relationships,” Brend says.

“Remaking our current systems to be trauma-informed is an essential step toward promoting meaningful change and healing for all people impacted by traumatic experience.”

She adds that trauma-informed care (TIC) is often misunderstood as focussing on individualizing trauma and its impacts.

“In fact, TIC is about infusing knowledge about the impacts of trauma (stemming from any potential source, such as violence and abuse, racism, colonialism, sexism or homophobia) at the systemic level.”

Read Denise Brend’s cited study in Children and Youth Services Review. Learn more about Concordia’s Department of Applied Human Sciences.

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