Guest Columnist

Put troubled teens first

A high school teacher conducts a class at Four Oaks’ residential facility for teenage boys in Marion in this 2015 file photo. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
A high school teacher conducts a class at Four Oaks’ residential facility for teenage boys in Marion in this 2015 file photo. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

Difficult situations can often bring strength, understanding and solutions when community efforts focus on solving the root of the problem instead of hiding from it.

Such was a pivotal night in March this year for Four Oaks and the Marion Police Department when officers were called by Four Oaks staff for help with an aggressive teen who eventually police charged with assault.

Since that time, The Gazette covered a story that shined a light on the issue of aggressive teens and police calls. The story covered incidents in previous months to which Marion Police had responded to Four Oaks because of runaways, assaults and property damage.

It takes more than an approach and data to address the growth of child and teen aggression.

Because of the incidents, Marion police, Four Oaks, Sixth District Juvenile Court Services and the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) and other community officials are working to reverse this trend. While challenges will continue, this partnership of local organizations has made progress in reducing incidents, improving communication, and collaborating to help youth succeed.

The Problem: Over the last five years, officials at detention centers across Iowa and the State Training School for Boys in Eldora have witnessed higher teenage aggression. Those correctional facilities admit adjudicated teens, many youth who have been charged with crimes in the Juvenile Court system.

But residential facilities that take children with mental and behavioral health issues are now being asked to admit more aggressive youth too. Rather than placing youth far from home, away from family, the goal is to expedite successful treatment within the community.

Systemic Work: Many youth in detention and corrections are angry. They may have experienced trauma in their childhood; abuse, neglect and witnesses to violence. Oftentimes poverty, mental illness and substance abuse contribute to significant problems in the family, school and community.

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Several years ago, Four Oaks and other child mental and behavioral health agencies began learning more about how trauma can have lifelong effects and prevent children from becoming successful adults. The key question asked by direct care providers under this approach is not “what’s wrong with you?,” but rather, “what happened to you?” Trauma-informed care has had positive outcomes for children by teaching them to understand where their trauma is rooted and learn to better manage themselves.

Likewise, the Marion Police Department is continually looking at ways to improve community policing. They recently did a study with the University of Iowa on “Intelligence Led Policing,” which will help them come up with a better way to police the city, based on data points.

Community Action: But it takes more than an approach and data to address the growth of child and teen aggression. Four Oaks, the Marion Police, Juvenile Court Services, Department of Human Services and other community leaders have been meeting and listening to each other in order to address the current issues. There is a need for deeper work with youth and the resources to do it. With state, county and local budgets strapped, it will take strong leadership and innovative work to reverse this complex problem in the long-term. Helping these youth and their families succeed is critical to assure that our community thrives, both now and in the future. We are committed to making that happen and are asking you to join us.

• Anne Gruenewald is president and CEO of Four Oaks. Joseph McHale is Marion’s chief of police.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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