Grieving Youth in the Justice System: A Call for Help from the Legal Community

This Children’s Grief Awareness Day, attorneys should seek to understand the impacts of grieving youth in the juvenile justice system.

By Michelle Gonzalez, Samantha Anthony, Kristine Grady Derewicz and Brian O. Sumner

Today is Children’s Grief Awareness Day. How is this relevant to our legal community? Grief, a physiological and psychological response to loss, is often overlooked as a contributor to decision making. Many youth involved in the juvenile justice system have experienced a loss and are grieving. In Chicago, one study found the prevalence of loss due to death to be 88% for detained adolescents, while another in San Diego found the prevalence of loss to be 71.9%. We know that an estimated 5.6 million children in the United States will experience the death of a parent or sibling by age 18—not including the deaths of caregivers and other loved ones, reasonably suggesting that the number of grieving youth is actually much higher. The many ways that youth respond to loss can influence behaviors that land youth in the juvenile justice system. If we understand the impacts of grief, then we can identify and support grieving youth, particularly those involved in the juvenile justice system.

Philadelphia’s Uplift Center for Grieving Children provides free grief support services to youth at the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Services Center who can range in age from 10 to 18. As lawyers, we should be aware of and support this important work as one component of a wholistic approach to addressing healthy development of the youth of our city.

All people experience grief in connection with the death of a loved one, or more ambiguously as a result of loss of connection, stability or physical presence. A grieving youth may be experiencing the loss of more than one person, and these deaths may be due to homicides, suicides, or natural causes, perhaps witnessed by the youth. A still-developing brain can contribute to the challenges youth experience when coping with the impact of grief. We re-grieve at every developmental stage, meaning the way we respond to grief over our lives may change as our brain development changes.

As stated, grief is often overlooked as a contributing factor to behavior. The U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention estimates that 424,300 juveniles were arrested in 2020, with a suggested recidivism rate of about 30% according to two studies. How many of those youth were grieving when they engaged in the behavior that resulted in an arrest? Some offenses which correlate with grief responses are assault, theft, and drug abuse violations. Research confirms that grief impacts the brain in ways that compromise the youth’s ability to make healthy and safe decisions. Grieving youth may engage in risky behaviors which can include drug and alcohol use. They withdraw socially and experience change in activity levels. Their concentration and productivity are affected. They are restless and often don’t sleep well. They often experience symptoms of depression, anxiety, and panic. Fundamentally, their decision-making capacity is affected as a result of grief.

Many grieving youth do not have support or resources to understand and manage their emotions, and as a result may engage in behaviors and make choices that lead to engagement with the juvenile justice system. Typical grief responses in youth—risk-taking and compromised cognitive processing primary among them—are exactly the behaviors that underlie many juvenile offenses. Their response to a loss may be the very thing that lands them in the juvenile justice system, perhaps more than once.

The Uplift Center for Grieving Children has been supporting the Philadelphia community with free grief services for over 20 years. The clinicians at Uplift, each of whom holds a master’s degree, work with youth who are housed at the Juvenile Justice Services Center. From June to October 2022, Uplift worked with 41 youths, approximately 22% of the youths housed in the JJSC, all of whom had experienced the death of someone significant to them. Uplift’s grief program at the PJSSC is an intentional and individualized program that creates a space for youth to make meaning of their grief experience and equip themselves with tools for coping with grief and other correlating mental health issues. The program focuses on exploring feelings, coping skills, honoring memories, and identifying supports. The youth do this through use of art therapy based activities as well as use of literature and exploratory writing. Youth who attend the program are provided a certificate of completion as a way of demonstrating their commitment to their journey of healing. Participation in mental health programs like Uplift’s peer grief support groups, may help reduce recidivism and help youth exit the criminal justice system earlier.

Outside of the juvenile justice system, Uplift provides peer-support for grieving youth throughout the city, partnering with the Philadelphia School District and community-based organizations, and offering services in its facility in East Falls. Uplift also operates the Philly HopeLine, connecting grieving youth with resources and support for navigating grief. On its website, Uplift provides resources for grieving youth, their families and caregivers.

At a time when our legal community is called upon to engage meaningfully in our civic discourse around crime prevention and minimizing recidivism, systemic collaboration between the justice system and the mental health system is integral in this work. The work of the clinicians at Uplift Center for Grieving Children is a key component of that conversation. To successfully rehabilitate youth involved in the juvenile justice system, we must also provide support for the grief in their lives. On this Children’s Grief Awareness Day, we invite our colleagues in the legal community to consider the effect of grief on youth and the meaningful impact that grief support services have for the affected youth and their families.

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Michelle Gonzalez is the senior bilingual clinician at Uplift Center for Grieving Children in Philadelphia. Samantha Anthony is a senior clinician at Uplift. Kristine Grady Derewicz is a shareholder at Littler Mendelson and an Uplift board member and Brian O. Sumner is an associate with German Gallagher & Murtagh and an Uplift young professionals board member.

Reprinted with permission from the November 17, 2022, edition of The Legal Intelligencer© 2022 ALM Global Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or