Traumatic Experiences and Juvenile Amenability: The Role of Trauma in Forensic Evaluations and Judicial Decision Making Christina L. Riggs Romaine • Naomi E. Sevin Goldstein •

Traumatic Experiences and Juvenile Amenability: The Role of Trauma in Forensic Evaluations and Judicial Decision Making Christina L. Riggs Romaine • Naomi E. Sevin Goldstein •

Published online: 16 December 2010 � Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Abstract The legal files of 144 juveniles charged as adults in one Pennsylvania county were reviewed to investigate whether trauma-related information was included in evalu-

ations of amenability to treatment and how that information related to legal decisions to

keep youth in criminal court or decertify them to the juvenile system. Potentially traumatic

experiences (PTEs) were noted in more than 71% of evaluations. Youth with any PTE

documented were more likely to remain in criminal court, have more prior arrests, report

regular marijuana use, and have mental health diagnoses associated with offending

behaviors. Youth with direct (versus witnessed) exposure to PTEs were more likely to have

been placed out of home and to be diagnosed with other mental health disorders. However,

only 6% of the evaluations specifically recommended treatment for trauma-related issues,

and documentation of PTEs was not associated with the ultimate legal decision except in

cases involving severe injury.

Keywords Amenability � Forensic evaluations � Juvenile offenders � Transfer decisions � Trauma


Evaluations of amenability to treatment are frequently requested in the pre- and post-

adjudication stages within the juvenile justice system (Melton et al. 2007). In the pre-

adjudication phase, these types of evaluations are often requested to aid in determining

C. L. Riggs Romaine (&) � N. E. S. Goldstein � E. Hunt � D. DeMatteo Department of Psychology, Drexel University, MS 626, 1505 Race Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102, USA e-mail:

Present Address: C. L. Riggs Romaine Department of Psychiatry, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, MA, USA

E. Hunt University of South Florida, Tampa, FL, USA


Child Youth Care Forum (2011) 40:363–380 DOI 10.1007/s10566-010-9132-4

whether a juvenile’s case should be heard in juvenile or criminal court. Although states vary

in their procedures, juveniles can generally arrive under the jurisdiction of criminal courts in

three ways: judicial waiver1 (in 46 states, the juvenile court judge transfers the youth to

criminal court; Griffin 2003), prosecutorial discretion2 (in 15 states, the prosecutor deter-

mines whether charges originate in juvenile or criminal court; Snyder and Sickmund 2006),

and statutory exclusion3 (in 29 states, certain offenses are excluded from the juvenile court’s

jurisdiction and charges originate in criminal court; Snyder and Sickmund 2006). Most

states that allow juveniles to be tried in criminal courts provide a ‘‘fail-safe’’ mechanism by

which youth can be returned to the juvenile system. These procedures, known as decerti-

fication or reverse waiver, allow the juvenile’s appropriateness for the adult legal system to

be reviewed. In most jurisdictions, youth are evaluated by a mental health professional as

part of the decertification/reverse waiver process, and the information included by the

evaluator and the factors weighed by a judge depend largely on governing statutes.

Most of the existing research on transfer decisions has focused on factors that predict

juvenile court judges’ decisions to transfer cases to adult court (Jordan and Myers 2007).

The seriousness of the offense and presence of a delinquent record seem to be the strongest

predictors of transfer to adult court (e.g., Clarke 1996; Fritsch et al. 1996; Jordan and

Myers 2007; Sridharan et al. 2004) and seem to affect the juvenile court judges’ percep-

tions of youth as amenable to treatment in the juvenile system (Jordan and Myers 2007).

Extra-legal factors, such as age (e.g., Fagan and Deschenes 1990; Myers 2003) and school

enrollment (Sridharan et al. 2004), have also been observed to predict transfer decisions.

Research suggests that judges and psychologists conceptualized the factors noted in Kent v. United States (1966)—risk, sophistication-maturity, and amenability to treatment—in very similar ways and typically reported that all three constructs were important to consider in

decisions to transfer youth to adult court (Salekin et al. 2001, 2002).

Less research has examined the process of returning youth to the juvenile courts after

charges originate in the adult criminal system. The limited available research suggests that

factors associated with returning youth to the juvenile courts are similar to those observed

in studies of judicial decisions to transfer youth to criminal court (see Jordan and Myers

2007). Youth who were older, had more prior referrals, and were charged with use of a

firearm in the commission of the alleged offense were less likely to be returned to the

juvenile court’s jurisdiction (Snyder et al. 2000). Although some extra-legal individual

factors have been examined (e.g., academic status; Sridharan et al. 2004), the way

potentially traumatic experiences (PTEs)4 are reported by evaluators and considered by

judges has not been examined.

The lack of research in this area raises the important question of whether exposure to

trauma and trauma-related symptomatology should be a focus of juvenile evaluations for

the courts. Court-ordered evaluations of juveniles typically focus on issues of amenability

(Melton et al. 2007) and tend to include information on the youths’ personalities, cognitive

abilities, and needs across a variety of psychosocial domains. Traumatic experiences and

1 Also known as transfer or certification. 2 Also known as concurrent jurisdiction. 3 Also known as legislative waiver. 4 In order to avoid making assumptions about individual youths’ interpretations of and responses to neg- ative experiences, we use the term ‘‘potentially traumatic experiences’’ throughout this paper to refer to stressful life events that may be traumatic when experienced by youth. Generally, trauma is defined broadly here to include exposure to PTEs and the full range of symptomatoloy that could follow, in addition to the more stringent criteria listed in the DSM-IV-TR.

364 Child Youth Care Forum (2011) 40:363–380


trauma-related symptomatology could influence youths’ functioning in multiple domains

and may be relevant to the needs of the individual. However, the absence of empirical data

and clear legal policies leave evaluators with little guidance on how to consider and weigh

PTEs when examining youths’ needs and amenability.

Generally, evaluations of amenability to treatment require the evaluator to broadly

examine all treatment alternatives, including those easily available and those more difficult

to implement. Melton et al. (2007) emphasized the importance of providing specific

treatment recommendations. This, along with the historical child-centered focus of the

juvenile courts, suggests that, under the amenability prong in state statutes, an evaluator

could examine a youth’s history of PTEs and offer recommendations for trauma-informed

and -responsive care. Research has consistently shown that juvenile justice populations

have high rates of PTEs. Estimates suggest that 75% of juvenile justice youth have

experienced traumatic victimization (Abram et al. 2004; Cauffman et al. 1998). Docu-

mented cases of abuse and neglect have been observed in 55% of status offenders and

delinquents (Famularo et al. 1990), and estimates suggest that 11–50% of juvenile justice

youth meet diagnostic criteria for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (Arroyo 2001; Garland

et al. 2001; Teplin et al. 2002; Wasserman et al. 2002). In addition to higher rates of

traumatic experiences, high rates of mental health problems and substance use have been

observed in juvenile justice youth (Ulzen and Hamilton 1998; Teplin et al. 2002).

When amenability is evaluated in the context of the court’s decision to hear a youth’s case

in juvenile or adult court, the services available in the two systems must be considered. The

range of services available to the youth in both systems and how the youth’s trauma-related

symptoms could impact amenability to available interventions should impact the broad

determination of amenability. Research suggests that youth placed in adult corrections set-

tings are more likely to be physically and sexually assaulted than youth in the juvenile justice

system (Beyer 1997) and are more likely to commit suicide (Krisberg and DeComo 1991).

Youth who have already experienced PTEs may experience compounding problems from the

on-going stress and potential for victimization in the adult environment.

Delinquent victims of trauma and abuse reported more psychological distress (anger,

depression, and anxiety) than non-delinquent victims (Cuevas et al. 2007), suggesting a

need for intervention and treatment. Witnessing violence alone has been associated with

the development of PTSD symptoms, including chronic symptoms of increased heart rate

and sleep disturbance, and increased fighting, alcohol/drug use, carrying knives, and dif-

ficulty in school (Buka et al. 2001). Taken as a whole, the literature on the negative effects

of traumatic experiences suggests that recommendations regarding the need for trauma-

related treatment are warranted.

At the same time, when it comes to amenability, it is important to consider the ‘‘implicit

clause’’ in most statutes: ‘‘amenability to treatment, such that the juvenile will be less likely to recidivate’’ (Melton et al. 2007, p. 481; emphasis in original). The courts are primarily focused on how treatment will impact juvenile defendants’ likelihood of recidivism.

Treatment of trauma-related symptoms may be needed to reduce distress, but it may or

may not impact recidivism. A link between several types of PTEs and delinquency has

been established. Child abuse/neglect and emotional deprivation are established family risk

factors for juvenile antisocial behavior (see DeMatteo and Marczyk 2005). Intra-familial

violence is also predictive of juvenile antisocial behavior (Dembo et al. 2000; Kashani and

Allan 1998), and youth exposed to abuse directly and indirectly (e.g., spousal abuse)

engage in more violent behavior than non-exposed youth (Widom 1989). Just the expe-

rience of stressful life events (e.g., divorce, death of a loved one) is associated with a

higher risk of antisocial behavior (Eitle and Turner 2002; Hoffman and Cerbone 1999).

Child Youth Care Forum (2011) 40:363–380 365


Research suggests that many types of PTEs and stressful experiences are associated

with antisocial behaviors, and that delinquent youth with histories of abuse are more likely

to recidivate (Heilbrun et al. 2005; Ryan 2006; Ryan and Testa 2005); however, the exact

relationship between trauma and delinquency is not well understood. In one study, high

levels of delinquency were associated with higher rates of being neglected and physically

abused, and higher rates of familial involvement in crime (Dembo and Schmeidler 2003).

Other research, however, has found no significant difference in the total number of vic-

timization experiences of delinquent and non-delinquent victims (Cuevas et al. 2007). The

relationship between the experience of PTEs and offending is less than clear.

Researchers attempting to examine this relationship have proposed that youth who have

experienced traumatic and/or stressful life events may interpret social cues differently than

non-traumatized youth and may respond with anti-social behaviors and attributes (Baer and

Maschi 2003). Maschi and Bradley (2008) found that negative affect and delinquent peers

partially moderated the relationship between traumatic experiences and delinquency. These

results highlight, again, the importance of assessing the youth’s response to the event (e.g.,

negative affect) and other environmental influences (e.g., delinquent peers). Recent

research and proposed theoretical models suggest that the relationship between traumatic

experiences and delinquent behavior is complicated and influenced by many factors.

The current state of the literature does not allow evaluators to suggest to the courts that

addressing youths’ trauma-related symptoms will reduce recidivism. It is possible that

traumatic experiences may be a risk marker (i.e., something associated with and possibly

preceding offending) or it may indeed be a risk factor (i.e., something causally associated

with offending) (see Kraemer et al. 1997). To determine that trauma is a risk factor for

delinquency would require empirical research showing that reductions in trauma sub-

stantially reduce delinquent behavior (Mulvey 2005). A further challenge is determining

whether traumatic experiences are a static risk factor (i.e., one that is unmodifiable but

predictive of outcome, such as age at first offense) or a dynamic risk factor (i.e., one that is

modifiable and associated with a change in outcome, such as access to weapons) for

offending and recidivism (see Andrews and Bonta 1998). Research suggests that CBT-

based treatments for traumatic exposure can effectively reduce symptoms associated with

trauma (see Silverman et al. 2008), but the effect of these trauma treatments on other

outcomes (e.g., delinquent behavior and recidivism) has not been examined. It remains

unclear whether the treatment of trauma-related symptoms from victimization and expo-

sure to trauma reduces the risk of re-offense. Evaluators tasked with determining the

treatment needs, amenability, and offense risk of delinquent youth do not have guide-

lines to follow about how PTEs should be evaluated and weighted in treatment


The Current Study: Decertification in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is currently 1 of 17 states with both statutory exclusion and decertification

procedures (Snyder and Sickmund 2006). Statutory provisions in the Juvenile Act dictate

that the criminal court has jurisdiction over youth ages 15, 16, and 17 who are charged with

certain serious offenses5 (42 Pa.C.S. § 6302). Juveniles may request a decertification

5 Offenses: use of a deadly weapon while committing an offense that, if committed by an adult, would be classified as: rape; involuntary deviate sexual intercourse; aggravated assault; robbery; robbery of a motor vehicle; aggravated indecent assault; kidnapping; voluntary manslaughter; or attempting, conspiring, or soliciting to commit any of these crimes or to commit murder.

366 Child Youth Care Forum (2011) 40:363–380


hearing during which the judge is required to consider certain criteria (the same criteria

used to transfer adolescents to criminal court) (Jordan and Myers 2007). Specifically,

factors associated with the index offense (e.g., nature and circumstances of the alleged

offense), with the individual (e.g., amenability to treatment, adequacy and duration of

dispositional alternatives, delinquent history), and ‘‘any other relevant factors’’ (42 Pa.C.S.

§ 6355(a)(4)(iii)(A)-(G)) are considered. Psychological evaluations are commonly

requested by the youths’ attorneys to provide information on risk to public safety, treat-

ment needs, and amenability.

The Juvenile Act has several provisions under which trauma could, theoretically, be

addressed. Traumatic experiences would not likely be considered under the factors related

to the offense (e.g., impact on victims and community, nature and circumstance of

offense). However, trauma could be considered under factors associated with the indi-

vidual, including the youth’s culpability and amenability to ‘‘treatment, supervision or

rehabilitation as a juvenile’’ (42 Pa.C.S. § 6355(a)(4)(iii)(G)). Under this last criterion,

‘‘any other relevant factor’’ can be considered in addition to age, maturity, criminal

sophistication, and prior attempts at rehabilitation. An evaluator could provide information

about PTEs in the youth’s life and relate these to the specific treatment needs and ame-

nability of that youth. Traumatic experiences may also be relevant components of a youth’s

maturity (i.e., if traumatic experiences have contributed to delayed development) and to

explaining the success or failure of previous interventions if the treatment did not address

the individual’s traumatic experiences.

Although there appears to be room to consider trauma under Pennsylvania’s current

statutes, evaluators have little to no guidance regarding whether or how to address this

specific issue, and they may or may not assess trauma or exposure to PTEs in their

evaluations. The purpose of the current study was to examine how PTEs were assessed and

reported in evaluations of juveniles charged as adults in one Pennsylvania jurisdiction. The

first goal was to describe how PTEs were reported in these evaluations and to compare the

observed rates to those found in the broader juvenile justice population. Because higher

levels of delinquency have been associated with higher rates of traumatic experiences in

some studies (Dembo and Schmeidler 2003), and youth included in this study were charged

directly in criminal court with relatively serious offenses, we expected rates of traumatic

experiences to be similar to, or higher than, estimates of trauma in the juvenile justice


The second goal of this study was to provide additional information about the rela-

tionship between trauma and delinquent behavior by examining offense-related differences

and behavioral differences between serious juvenile offenders with and without reported

histories of PTEs. We expected that youth who had experienced PTEs would have more

previous arrests and higher rates of substance use and mental health problems. In a sec-

ondary, exploratory analysis designed to provide more information about the impact of

PTEs that were directly experienced and those that were witnessed, we compared youth

with direct experiences of PTEs to those with only a reported history of witnessing PTEs.

The third goal of this study was to explore how information reported by forensic mental

health evaluators about PTEs related to the judge’s decisions about whether the youthful

defendant should remain in criminal court or be decertified to juvenile court. We first

examined the correlations between traumatic event-related variables and the judge’s ulti-

mate decisions to decertify youth or retain them in criminal court. We then used logistic

regression analyses to examine which factors were associated with the judge’s decisions,

while controlling for the effects of other predictors, including non-trauma related factors

associated with decertification decisions.

Child Youth Care Forum (2011) 40:363–380 367



The legal records of 144 juveniles represented by the public defender’s office in decertifi-

cation hearings between January 2006 and March 2009 were reviewed as part of a larger study

examining factors associated with decertification decisions. The study took place in a large,

urban, Pennsylvania County. One-third of juvenile arrests in Pennsylvania, and over half of

juvenile arrests for serious charges, take place in this county (‘‘Pennsylvania Uniform Crime

Reporting System,’’ 2008). The sample represented 92% of youth represented by the public

defender’s office in decertification hearings6 in the 39-month period. The remaining 8% were

not included because records were not available for review (n = 6) or did not meet inclusion criteria (n = 5). Records were eligible for review if they contained a forensic mental health assessment and record of the charges brought against the youth.

The sample was 80% male (n = 115). Youth ranged from 15 to 18 years (M = 16.61, SD = .86), and 89% were African-American, 6% Hispanic, 3% Caucasian, and 2%

‘‘Other.’’ IQ scores ranged from 45 to 117 (M = 82.63, SD = 12.10). The forensic mental health evaluation reports indicated that most youth (42%) were enrolled in school and

attended occasionally, 32% attended regularly, 24% were not attending school, and 2% had

graduated or completed GED requirements. Youth had 0–8 previous arrests (M = 1.58, SD = 1.63), and 38% had been on probation at least once. Charges for the index offense

ranged from theft to murder, with aggravated assault the most common charge.

Coding Scheme

A structured coding scheme was created that operationally defined the factors noted in the

Pennsylvania Juvenile Code that are relevant to decertification decisions. Under the

Juvenile Act provision allowing for the consideration of ‘‘any other relevant factors’’ (42

Pa. § 6355(a)(4)(iii)(G)(IX)), the primary variable of interest for this study, exposure to

PTEs, was recorded. In this exploratory study, PTEs were defined broadly and coded based

on the presence of various stressful life events. Any reports in the file of abuse, neglect, or

other traumatic experiences were recorded. If a potentially stressful live event was noted

(e.g., death of an extended family member), it was recorded if information was available

suggesting that the event could have been experienced as stressful by the youth (e.g., the

extended family member had a close relationship with the youth). Other stressful events

(e.g., death of custodial parent/guardian, gunshot wounds) were assumed to be PTEs and

recorded as such. Although the forensic mental health evaluation served as the primary

source of information, PTEs were also recorded based on other information in the legal file.

Specifically, in nearly all cases (90%) a psychosocial summary completed by social

workers in the public defender’s office was included in the legal file. This summary is

frequently given to an evaluator who uses it as one source of information about the youth’s

history. For this reason, forensic evaluation reports generally included background infor-

mation presented in psychosocial summaries. However, in some cases, the forensic eval-

uation reports did not include information on PTEs, although the information was included

in the psychosocial histories; in such cases, information about PTEs was recorded directly

from the psychosocial history. The specific source of information for PTEs was not

recorded in this study.

6 Note: The cases of many (42%) juveniles charged as adults and represented by the public defender’s office are decided before the decertification hearing takes place. The majority of these cases are reslated by agreement of the prosecution and defense.

368 Child Youth Care Forum (2011) 40:363–380


All PTEs were recorded in an open-ended format and later recoded as dichotomous

variables indicating the presence or absence of a PTE. See Table 1 for a list of PTEs and

their classifications as directly experienced or witnessed. If reports indicated that the youth

had experienced both direct and witnessed events, the youth was classified as having direct

exposure to PTEs for analyses examining differences in direct and witnessed exposure.

In addition to PTEs, the structured coding scheme included all factors noted in the Penn-

sylvania Juvenile Act. Table 2 describes the variables of interest in this study. Under the pro-

vision of ‘‘any other relevant factor,’’ we recorded factors suggested in the literature as possibly

related to decertification decisions (e.g., substance use), and those of interest in this study. To

limit the subjective decision-making required of coders, factors were coded on the basis of

explicit statements made by the forensic evaluators and factual information available in the files.

Charge-related information was coded in two ways. First, we recorded the most serious

charge brought against the youth for the index offense. Second, we recorded the category

of this offense, using the categories defined by Gottfredson and Barton (1993). Using these

categories, youths’ most serious charges fell into categories 5 (Major Property Felonies), 8

(Felonious Assault, Felony with Weapon), and 9 (Murder, Rape, and Arson).

Mental health diagnoses listed in the evaluation report were recorded and later coded as

either risk-relevant or non-risk-relevant. Risk-relevant diagnoses were those associated

with increased risk for offending in either the literature (see Cottle et al. 2001; Hawkins

et al. 2000) or by nature of the diagnosis itself (e.g., substance use is itself an illegal

activity; American Psychiatric Association 2000) (see Table 2). Three coders (a doctoral

student in clinical psychology, a master’s student in psychology, and an undergraduate

student majoring in psychology) were trained by the first author on the decertification

process, the information available in legal records, and the specific coding procedures.

Each coder independently coded information from six sample files. Variables for which

there was any disagreement were discussed, and coding differences were resolved. One of

every seven study files was coded separately by two coders, and inter-rater reliability was

calculated for all factors requiring judgment. Good agreement was observed for ‘‘Impact of

Offense on Victims’’ and ‘‘Maturity’’ (Kappas = .86), and perfect inter-rater reliability

was observed for all other factors (Kappa = 1) (mean Kappa rating = .94).

Table 1 Rates of potentially traumatic experiences and correlations with judge’s decision

Type Total Male Female Correlation with judge’s decision

N (%) N (%) N (%) phi

Directly experienced

Abuse/neglect 56 (39) 39 (34) 17 (59) .09

Serious injury 13 (9) 11 (10) 2 (2) .17*

Sexual abuse 9 (6) 1 (1) 8 (8) .07

Rape 6 (4) 0 (0) 8 (8) .03

Immigration from war-torn country 2 (1) 2 (2) 0 (0) -.10

Prostitution 1 (1) 0 (0) 1 (1) .10


Death/serious illness of close relative 43 (30) 36 (31) 7 (24) .15

Witness to domestic violence 20 (14) 16 (14) 4 (14) -.10

Witness to death 20 (14) 17 (15) 3 (10) .10

* p \ .05

Child Youth Care Forum (2011) 40:363–380 369



Reports of Potentially Traumatic Experiences in Decertification Evaluations

Most information regarding traumatic experiences was found in the sections of the forensic

evaluations detailing the youths’ personal and family histories. Information was typically

embedded within the timeline of events and was not emphasized. The exception to this rule

was information on physical injuries, and this information was typically included in a

Table 2 Relevant factors recorded under PA juvenile act (42 Pa.C.S. § 6355(a)(4)(iii))

PA juvenile act statute and variable recorded

Variable type


Impact on victims

Inflicted physical harm in index offense


Nature and circumstances of offense

Number of charges Continuous Number of charges listed for index offense

Murder, rape, or arson charges Yes/no Yes, if any charges in this category

Used a firearm Yes/no (during commission of index offense)

Discharged a firearm Yes/no (during commission of index offense)

Peers present Yes/no (during commission of index offense)


Mental capacity Continuous Age at time of arrest

IQ score Continuous

Previous record

Age at first arrest Continuous

Number of previous arrests Continuous

Extent delinquent history/success or failure of treatment

Number of delinquent placements


Number of dependent placements


Number of mental health placements


Any other relevant factor

Number of recommendations Continuous Number of treatment recommendations listed by forensic mental health evaluator

Marijuana use Categorical Recorded as regular use, experimentation, or denied use.

Alcohol use Categorical Recorded as regular use, experimentation, or denied use.

Substance use treatment Yes/no

Deviant peers Yes/no Yes, if relationships with deviant peers noted by the evaluator

Non-risk relevant mental health diagnoses

Yes/no Yes, if mental health diagnosis given (excluding those defined as risk relevant)

Risk relevant mental health diagnoses

Yes/no Yes, if diagnosis of ODD, CD, ADHD, and/or substance use disorders.

Mental health treatment history Yes/no

370 Child Youth Care Forum (2011) 40:363–380


separate section about the youths’ medical history. Head injuries and wounds significant

enough to require emergency medical care were typically included in this part of the

evaluation. Some evaluators also provided this information when reporting testing results,

specifically if the Massachusetts Youth Screening Instrument—Second Version (MAYSI-2; Grisso and Barnum 2006) was used as part of the evaluation. The MAYSI-2 asks youth

about lifetime traumatic experiences, and evaluators that obtained data from this instru-

ment often included details provided by the youth. Generally, it was apparent that trau-

matic experiences were not one of the primary targets of evaluation/assessment in these

reports. Attention was not specifically drawn to these factors and there was no noticeable

trend of using any specialized instruments to assess response to trauma by DSM-IV-TR

criteria. Study procedures do not allow us to conclusively state that no evaluations included

specialized, focused, evaluation of exposure and response to trauma. Many evaluations

included a full, five-axis DSM-IV-TR diagnosis. Diagnostic information was typically

provided in an addendum to the report or cover letter to the lawyer and not as part of the

body of the forensic evaluation because certain diagnoses (e.g., conduct disorder, oppo-

sitional defiant disorder) could be prejudicial or used against the youth. Because the

forensic evaluation is not primarily a diagnostic evaluation, it is possible that evaluators

used more specialized methods (e.g., a specialized assessment tool, assessment of DSM-

IV-TR PTSD criteria) to reach their diagnostic conclusions, but did not record this as part

of their forensic evaluation. Given the information available and the study procedures

utilized, what is apparent is that evaluators did not regularly discuss their evaluation of or

findings on PTEs or youths’ responses to trauma.

Six percent of evaluations specifically recommended treatment for trauma-related

issues. Examination of these cases suggested that recommendations were made for youth

who experienced extensive and egregious abuse (e.g., the victim of repeated severe

physical and sexual abuse by a family member) or those who had very recently experi-

enced the death of a close relative. Although the number of traumatic experiences reported

did not vary by evaluator, F(10,133) = 1.16, p = .32, 60% of the treatment recommen- dations for trauma-related issues were made by 2 of the 11 evaluators represented in the

sample. A diagnosis of PTSD was reported for 5% of youth (n = 7). Interestingly, specific treatment for trauma-related issues was recommended for only one of those youths.

Seventy-one percent of files included information about at least one traumatic experi-

ence. Records reported that youth experienced between 0 and 5 types of traumatic expe-

riences7 (M = 1.19, SD = 1.04). If traumatic experiences were noted, an average of 1.7 types (SD = .85) were reported. Direct experiences of PTEs were reported in 48% of

records, and 48% included reports of witnessing events that were potentially traumatic.

Both types of PTEs were reported for 25% of youth. Table 1 reports the percentage of

youth for whom each type of PTE was reported.

Differences by Presence and Type of Potentially Traumatic Experience

Youth with and without reported histories of PTEs were compared (see Table 3). As

expected, youth for whom PTEs were reported had significantly more previous arrests,

t(114.9) = -3.95, p \ .001, d = .66, prior delinquent placements, t(141.5) = -4.87, p \ .001, d = .74, prior dependent placements, t (125) = -2.81, p = .006, d = .37, and treatment recommendations given by the evaluator t(83.1) = -2.61, p = .011, d = .46.

7 Note: Multiple incidences of the same type of trauma were not recorded.

Child Youth Care Forum (2011) 40:363–380 371


No significant differences were observed in the number of charges for the current offense,

age at arrest, age at first arrest, IQ scores, or number of times placed in an inpatient mental

health facility.

Table 3 Differences by presence and type of potentially traumatic experiences

PTEs Types of Experiences

Total (n = 144)

Yes (n = 103)

No (n = 41) Direct (n = 70)

Witnessed (n = 33)

M (SD) M (SD) M (SD) M (SD) M (SD)

Nature & circumstances of offense

Number of charges 7.89 (2.6) 7.89 (2.7) 7.88 (2.6) 7.84 (2.6) 8.00 (2.5)

Age (at arrest) 16.61 (.86) 16.66 (.87) 16.48 (.82) 16.62 (.88) 16.73 (.87)

Mental capacity

IQ score 82.63 (12.1) 82.40 (11.6) 83.20 (13.3) 83.00 (12.4) 81.09 (9.9)

Previous record

Age at first arrest 14.43 (1.9) 14.32 (1.9) 14.73 (1.8) 14.21 (1.9) 14.52 (1.9)

Number of previous arrests 1.58 (1.6) 1.85 (1.7)** .90 (1.1)** 1.80 (1.7) 1.96 (1.9)

Extent delinquent history/success or failure of treatment

Number of delinquent placements

.44 (.84) .59 (.93)** .07 (.35)** .70 (.97) .36 (.82)

Number of dependent placements

.25 (.82) .33 (.95)* .07 (.26)* .44 (1.1)* .09 (.29)*

Number of mental health placements

.17 (.64) .20 (.69) .05 (.22) .23 (.75) .15 (.57)

Any other relevant factor

Number of recommendations 3.56 (1.3) 3.73 (1.3)* 3.15 (1.2)* 3.81 (1.4) 3.55 (1.0)

N (%) N (%) N (%) N (%) N (%)

Impact on victims

Inflicted physical harm in index offense 69 (49) 50 (50) 20 (49) 35 (51) 15 (47)

Nature and circumstances of offense

Murder, rape or arson charges 16 (11) 13 (13) 3 (7) 8 (11) 5 (15)

Used a firearm 97 (68) 73 (72) 24 (59) 48 (70) 25 (78)

Discharged firearm 28 (30) 24 (33) 4 (17) 14 (30) 10 (40)

Peers present 96 (69) 66 (66) 30 (75) 46 (67) 20 (65)

Any other relevant factor

Regular marijuana use 61 (42) 50 (49)* 11 (27)* 37 (53) 13 (39)

Regular alcohol use 12 (8) 10 (99) 2 (5) 6 (9) 4 (13)

Substance use treatment 10 (7) 9 (9) 1 (2) 6 (9) 3 (9)

Deviant peers 111 (78) 79 (91) 32 (91) 54 (93) 25 (86)

Non-risk relevant mental health 102 (71) 71 (70) 31 (76) 54 (78)* 17 (52)*

Risk relevant mental health 83 (58) 65 (64)* 18 (44)* 43 (62) 22 (67)

Mental health treatment 73 (51) 56 (54) 17 (41) 41 (59) 15 (45)

Ultimate legal decision

Remain in criminal court 61 (42) 50 (49)* 11 (27)* 33 (47) 17 (52)

* p \ .05, ** p \ .001

372 Child Youth Care Forum (2011) 40:363–380


Youth with reported histories of PTEs were significantly more likely to remain in

criminal court (i.e., to have their decertification request denied), v2 (1, N = 144) = 5.66, p = .017, ru = .20. Differences also were observed in rates of substance use and mental health diagnoses. Youth with reported traumatic histories were significantly more likely to

have risk-relevant mental health diagnoses, v2 (1, N = 143) = 4.72, p = .030, ru = .18. As expected, youth with histories of traumatic events were also significantly more likely to

report regular marijuana use, v2 (2, N = 144) = 6.89, p = .032, ru = .22. Significant differences were not observed between youth with and without PTEs in the likelihood of

discharging a firearm, being charged with murder or other offenses in the most serious

category, harming the alleged victim, using a firearm, or having peers present during the

offense. Similarly, no significant differences were observed in the rates of non-risk-rele-

vant mental health diagnoses or association with deviant peers.

Fewer differences were observed when comparing youth with reported histories of PTEs

that were exclusively witnessed versus directly experienced. Youth with direct experiences

had significantly more prior placements in the dependent system, t(86.3) = -2.45, p = .016, d = .44, and they were more likely to have non-risk relevant mental health diagnoses, v2(1, N = 102) = 7.55, p = .006, ru = .27. Because PTSD is directly asso- ciated with the experience of trauma and is one of the potential non-risk-relevant diag-

noses, analyses also were run excluding youth with diagnoses of PTSD (n = 7). Significant differences remained, v2(1, N = 95) = 5.78, p = .016, ru = .25, with 76% of youth with direct experiences having received non-risk-relevant diagnoses, compared with 52% of

youth who witnessed experiences. No significant differences were observed in the likeli-

hood of remaining in criminal court, reporting regular substance use, or being involved

with deviant peers.

Traumatic Experiences and the Legal Decision

The presence or absence of most traumatic experiences was not significantly correlated with

the ultimate legal decision to decertify youth or retain them in criminal court (See Table 1).

Serious injury was the only type of PTE correlated with the legal decision. The number of

types of PTEs correlated significantly with the legal decision, r = .17, p = .041, but the reported experience of direct or witnessed experiences did not, ru = -.041, p = .68. The presence or absence of PTEs was significantly associated with the legal decision, ru = .198, p = .017, such that youth with reported traumatic experiences were more likely to remain in criminal court. No significant correlation was observed between the presence or absence of a

direct PTE and the legal decisions, ru = .09, p = .249. Logistic regression was used to examine the relationship between the trauma-related

factors and the dichotomous legal decision (decertify or retain in adult court). Because the

three trauma-related factors significantly correlated with the legal decision were not

independent of one another (i.e., the presence of a serious injury is inherently related to the

general presence of a PTE and the number of types of experiences), the three factors could

not be entered into the same regression analysis. Three simple regressions were conducted

to examine the influence of each variable individually. When the judge’s legal decision

was regressed on the presence/absence of PTEs, a significant relationship was observed

(see Table 4); youth for whom PTEs were reported were 2.57 times as likely to remain in

criminal court than were peers for whom no traumatic experiences were reported. Simi-

larly, regression analyses revealed that the number of types of PTEs was associated with

the legal decision when it was the only predictor variable in the equation (see Table 4),

such that every additional PTE made youth 1.4 times as likely to remain in adult court. The

Child Youth Care Forum (2011) 40:363–380 373


PTE of having a serious injury was not associated with the legal decision in regression

analyses (see Table 4).

As part of a larger study of decertification hearings, the factors noted in the Pennsyl-

vania Juvenile Code as factors to consider (e.g., age, threat to community), and those

potentially falling under the provision of ‘‘any other relevant factors’’ (e.g., substance use,

mental health diagnoses), have been fully explored elsewhere.8 Here, we briefly report the

significant factors associated with the legal outcome to control for their influence in

subsequent analyses examining the impact of trauma-related factors. Although some other

factors were significantly correlated with the judge’s decision, the only factors consistently

related to the legal outcome in controlled analyses (i.e., those that statistically controlled

for the influence of other factors) were age, category of offense, level of amenability

assigned by the evaluator, and history of probation. See Table 4 for a list of Juvenile Code

factors and their associated regression values.

When legal outcome was regressed simultaneously on the Juvenile Code Factors (age at

time of arrest, category of offense, amenability assigned by the evaluator, and history of

probation) and presence/absence of PTEs, presence/absence of PTEs no longer signifi-

cantly predicted the legal outcome (see Table 4). Neither the number of types of PTEs nor

the specific PTE of serious injury were associated with the legal decision in analyses

controlling for the Juvenile Code factors (see Table 4). A model including age, category of

offense, amenability, and history of probation accurately classified 80% of youth as de-

certified or remaining in criminal court. Adding the experience of a serious injury or the

number of types of PTEs to the model did not improve classification. Adding the presence/

absence of PTEs improved classification slightly (82%).

Table 4 Prediction of legal decision from juvenile code and trauma-related factors

Individual trauma-related factors b SEb p OR 95% C.I.

Presence/absence of PTEs -.95 .40 .019 2.57 1.16–5.68

Number of types of PTEs .34 .17 .044 1.40 1.01–1.95

Serious injury 1.23 .63 .050 3.42 1.00–11.68

Pennsylvania juvenile code factors

Age 1.31 .34 \.001 3.70 1.90–7.20 Most serious category of offense 2.72 .99 .006 15.23 2.21–105.05

‘‘Mixed’’ amenability 2.01 1.20 .094 7.46 .71–78.43

‘‘Moderate’’ amenability 2.34 1.18 .047 10.33 1.03–104.00

‘‘Moderate to high’’ amenability 1.14 1.20 .342 3.12 .29–32.57

Prior probation 1.70 .58 .003 5.46 1.75–17.07

Trauma-related factors when controlling for juvenile code factors*

Presence/absence of PTEs -.15 .65 .818 .86 .24–3.05

Number of types of PTEs .01 .29 .964 1.01 .57–1.78

Serious injury .23 .89 .799 1.25 .22–7.13

* Age, category of offense, amenability, and probation significantly predicted the legal decision in each of the three logistic regression analyses

8 The correlations between the factors listed and the judge’s legal decision were explored. The judge’s legal decision was then regressed on factors that had yielded a significant correlation, while controlling for other significant factors.

374 Child Youth Care Forum (2011) 40:363–380



Trauma and Decertification Evaluations

Our first goal was to examine whether information on traumatic events was included in

evaluations of juvenile amenability. Consistent with previous research on the prevalence of

these experiences in juvenile justice populations (Abram et al. 2004), observed rates of

PTEs were high (71%). This observed rate suggests that information on PTEs may make its

way into forensic evaluations in decertification cases. Nevertheless, information on PTEs

tended to be embedded within social and family histories and was rarely noted as explicitly

traumatic or tied to current symptoms or functioning. Trauma-related treatment recom-

mendations were rarely given in these evaluations of serious juvenile offenders charged as

adults. Although such recommendations were made more often for girls than boys, they

still were given relatively rarely. Generally, exposure to PTEs did not appear to impact the

evaluator’s consideration of amenability. In decertification cases, specifically, different

interventions are available to youth depending on whether a case is heard in adult or

juvenile court. To accurately evaluate amenability, evaluators may need to consider the

range of services available and how exposure to PTEs and other relevant factors may

influence youths’ responses to treatment in both settings. Data suggest that some evaluators

were more likely than others to highlight trauma-related issues as targets for intervention.

In this study, reported rates of PTSD (5%) were much lower than estimates suggesting

that PTSD affects 11–50% of the broader population of juvenile justice youth (Arroyo

2001; Garland et al. 2001; Teplin et al. 2002; Wasserman et al. 2002). Little information

was provided on prior treatment for trauma-related needs, making it difficult to understand

whether interventions to address these needs had been undertaken in the past.

There are several possible explanations for why trauma-related information appears to

be contained within, but is not a focus of, these evaluations. Because traumatic experiences

are not one of the factors listed in the Pennsylvania statute, evaluators may not focus on

this specific issue in their clinical interviews or report writing. Also, despite a long

observed relationship between victimization and juvenile offending (Veysey 2008), the

relationship between traumatic experiences and recidivism is largely unknown. Evaluators

may view PTEs as a static risk factor that, like age at first offense, is not a target for

intervention. Future research examining how forensic evaluators conceptualize trauma and

its relevance to this type of evaluation is needed to better understand why little information

on PTEs is included in these evaluations.

It is also possible that youth may minimize or avoid discussing PTEs during evaluations

(Melton et al. 2007), making it difficult for evaluators to determine the impact of these

experiences. Finally, chronic PTSD symptoms, particularly the negative symptoms (e.g.,

detachment, restricted range of affect, hopelessness, estrangement from others), may be

especially difficult to assess, particularly in youth who could demonstrate similar symp-

toms as a result of the stress associated with a recent arrest and pending criminal trial for a

serious charge. Use of symptom checklists or other specialized assessment tools may help

evaluators systematically examine the presence and impact of PTEs.

Differences by Presence of Trauma and Trauma Type

Although the current study could not examine the potential causal relationship between

PTEs and offending behaviors, results suggest that juvenile offenders with histories of

PTEs may differ from other offending youth in important ways. It is important to interpret

Child Youth Care Forum (2011) 40:363–380 375


these findings within the limits of the current study. This study did not include systematic

evaluation of youths’ PTEs. Instead, it examined reports of these experiences in forensic

evaluations. It is very likely that youth experienced PTEs that were not specified in their

reports. Thus, observed differences suggest ways that serious juvenile offenders charged as

adults with and without reported PTEs may differ. Future research will need to examine if these differences are observed in the broader juvenile justice population when the presence

of such events is systematically evaluated.

In this sample, youth with traumatic histories had more previous arrests and more

placements within the delinquent and dependent systems. It is not surprising that youth

experiencing trauma would have more placements within the dependent system, as

authorities may have been involved to protect the youth from circumstances within the

home. The observed differences in delinquent placements and prior arrests are more dif-

ficult to interpret. Theoretically, the higher number of previous arrests could account for

the increased likelihood of remaining in criminal court (Snyder et al. 2000), but the number

of prior arrests was not associated with the legal decision in this sample. Consequently,

research is needed to understand why youth with traumatic experiences, charged as adults

and appearing in decertification hearings, had more previous arrests than similar youth

without traumatic experiences. If future research continues to observe this relationship,

such findings would support the need to assess and address trauma to prevent re-arrest and

multiple costly placements.

Results suggest that youth with traumatic experiences are more likely to have reported

regular marijuana use and been diagnosed with risk-relevant mental health diagnoses (note

that these two categories can overlap, as substance use disorders are among the diagnoses

associated with offending behaviors). These differences suggest that youth who have

experienced traumatic events have more risk factors for offending than do other youth.

Although the current study could not evaluate causality, findings are consistent with

previous research suggesting that environmental variables and intervening events may

influence the relationship between delinquency and trauma (e.g., Maschi and Bradley

2008). Trauma may serve as an indirect risk factor for offending; that is, it may increase

the likelihood that other risk factors will occur. If future research continues to find support

for this idea, addressing traumatic experiences in treatment will be an important compo-

nent of successful interventions.

Consistent with research on the impact of witnessing violence (Buka et al. 2001; Tei-

cher et al. 2006), relatively few differences were observed between youth with exclusively

witnessed PTEs and youth for whom direct experiences were reported. Previous research

revealed that youth directly exposed to violence endorsed more depressive symptoms than

did youth experiencing violence secondarily (Fitzpatrick 1993). Consistent with this

research, youth with reported direct PTEs were more likely to be given non-risk-relevant

diagnoses, including depression, anxiety, adjustment disorders, and learning disorders. It

seems that, in this sample of serious offenders, youth who experienced direct PTEs may

have presented with treatment needs in multiple domains. Results suggest that these youth

experienced more prior placements in the juvenile justice system before arriving in the

jurisdiction of the criminal courts and requesting decertification hearings.

Traumatic Experiences and the Legal Decision

Results suggest that the experience of PTEs and the number of types of PTEs experienced

are associated with the likelihood of remaining in adult court, but not so strongly as other

variables such as amenability. One specific PTE—experience of serious injury—was the

376 Child Youth Care Forum (2011) 40:363–380


only event correlated with the legal outcome. It is interesting to note that the correlations

that were observed revealed that traumatic history was associated with increased likelihood

that the youth would remain in criminal court. Results suggest that, in at least one juris-

diction, traumatic experiences may be interpreted as a risk factor and not as a target for

treatment. This tendency may be due to the judge’s focus on the specific factors that

correlated with the decision. Most serious injuries noted in evaluations were gunshot and

stab wounds that could be interpreted as indicators of more general involvement in violent

and illegal activities. It is important to note that PTE variables that correlated significantly

with the legal decision were not significant predictors in regression analyses that controlled

for other key factors. The positive correlations observed between the number and presence

of PTEs and remaining in adult court may reflect other underlying risk factors in the lives

of youth with traumatic experiences. Future research is needed to explore which risk

factors may be associated with experiencing PTEs.

As previously noted, traumatic experiences were not explicitly highlighted in most

evaluations. This may, in part, explain why the presence of information on traumatic

experiences was not influential on the judge’s decision. Focus-group research with juvenile

and family court judges suggested that judges are overwhelmed by reports of trauma and

need more training on the effects of trauma (The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

2008). The importance of addressing trauma in treatment is a relatively recent development

(Ford et al. 2007), and judges may not be aware of emerging trends in research and



There are several aspects of the current study that may limit the generalizability of results.

First, all data were gathered in one urban county in which one judge hears all requests for

decertification. Results reflect the way that factors in the Pennsylvania Juvenile Code are

weighed by one judge, and findings need to be compared with decisions in other counties.

Furthermore, only youth who reached the stage of an actual decertification hearing were

included in the study. Information is not available on the reported traumatic experiences of

youth who were charged as adults but did not reach the hearing stage. Many of these youth

were reslated by agreement of the prosecution, defense, and judge. Psychological evalu-

ations that included information on traumatic experiences may have been influential in that

process. Results may not be reflective of all youth charged as adults in the county; they

may only apply to youth who reach the stage of a decertification hearing.

Second, as previously noted, comparisons of youth with and without traumatic expe-

riences (and comparisons of youth with direct and witnessed experiences) were based on

reported experiences of trauma within a forensic evaluation—not on a focused or direct

evaluation of trauma per se. It is possible that trauma was under-reported in evaluations,

and youth may have experienced more trauma or more severe trauma than they reported to

the evaluators during the evaluations. Results are likely to be conservative estimates of the

trauma experienced by this population. Furthermore, trauma was defined in this study as

the presence or absence of certain events that are likely to be traumatic. Youths’ responses

to these experiences are unknown; thus, it is unclear which events impacted youth and

were experienced by the youth as traumatic. Without information about how youth

experienced these events and whether they were affected by them over time, it is likely that

some events may have been over-included and other, more subtle or private events under-

included, in reports of trauma.

Child Youth Care Forum (2011) 40:363–380 377


Finally, the forensic mental health evaluation reports included in this study represent

only one type of evaluation, for one specific type of hearing. Although these evaluations

include typical information on amenability and treatment needs, it is possible that other

types of evaluations done explicitly for diagnostic or treatment purposes may include more

information on traumatic experiences. Future research will need to explore how trauma is

evaluated and reported in other types of evaluations.


Ultimately, the courts must determine how traumatic experiences are to be considered

within the larger context of amenability and public safety. Continued clinical research may

help to inform this decision by examining the impact of trauma-informed and trauma

symptom-focused interventions on recidivism and offending behaviors. If a reduction in

offending behaviors is consistently observed in response to these types of treatments,

evaluation of trauma-related experiences and symptoms may become an important part of

amenability evaluations for the court.

In the meantime, there appears to be room for the consideration of traumatic experi-

ences within the larger context of treatment needs. Although the exact relationship between

trauma and delinquency needs further investigation, results of this study are consistent with

prior research suggesting that youth who have experienced PTEs have some unique

treatment needs. Results suggest that youth who have experienced PTEs are more likely to

have mental health problems associated with delinquency and recidivism. Failure to

carefully assess exposure to PTEs and trauma-associated symptomatology in evaluations

leaves a major domain of mental health problems unaddressed. In cases in which ame-

nability is evaluated in the context of courts’ decertification decisions, this failure to assess

trauma exposure and related symptoms may leave an important treatment need unad-

dressed, and youth may be placed in the less treatment-oriented adult system without

access to services that could reduce mental health symptoms and potentially decrease

likelihood of future offending. Results from this study suggest that, in at least one juris-

diction, evaluators do not appear to draw attention to trauma-related symptoms and the

sequelea of traumatic experiences. Little to no information regarding youths’ responses to

these events was included. Such information could be helpful in communicating with

courts regarding the effects of trauma and the need for treatment. Although further research

is need to better understand the relationships between trauma and offending, existing data

appear to support the need to address traumatic experiences and their effects in evaluations

of amenability to treatment.

Acknowledgments The authors would like to thank Grace Ahmed and Elizabeth Foster for their help with data collection and entry.


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