Behavioral health expert weighs in on uptick in Memphis juvenile crime

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) – As we inch more into the Summer of 2022, crime that involves Memphis teenagers is happening more and more.

In his weekly update, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland wrote on several instances where teens, some as young as 13, are stealing cars and pointing guns at citizens.

Strickland writes:

Numbers we’ve recently reported on show crimes like carjackings, which was up 43% last year compared to 2020, is up another 63% this year.

“What we see is a reflection of an unmet need,” said Dr. Altha Stewart.

Dr. Stewart is a Psychiatrist the Director of the Center for Youth Advocacy and Well-Being at UT’s Health Science Center.

She told us while she acknowledges the behavior is criminal, as a professional she is looking for the root cause of this behavior.

She breaks it down into three types of Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, that can lead to a deterioration of health: Abuse, Neglect, and Household Disfunction.

Information on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and how they can lead to a deterioration of mental health in a child(UTHSC)

“These are children who are not cared for, maybe bounced around from home to home because the original family: parent, grandparent, or extended relative, simply can’t care for them,” Stewart said. “These are children who are homeless, hungry, left to their own devices.”

In 2019, Stewart and her team delved into the Shelby County juvenile justice system, applying verified methods to children’s records.

“Our own numbers suggest that up to 70% of the children whose records had been reviewed had evidence of a mental illness,” Stewart said.

What’s more is there is Dr. Stewart mentioned an ACE questionnaire, drafted by Dr. Vincent Felitti and Dr. Robert Anda, that can help identify ACEs that may be taking place in a child’s home.

The questions are:

1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?

2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? or Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?

3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?

4. Did you often or very often feel that … No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?

5. Did you often or very often feel that … You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? or Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?

6. Was a biological parent ever lost to you through divorce, abandonment, or other reason?

7. Was your mother or stepmother: Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? or Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?

8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs?

9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?

10. Did a household member go to jail?

“If the answer is ‘yes’ to at least four of those questions, we can predict with some certainty that behaviors we see in these children when they grow up to be adults directly relates to that insult that happened when they were kids,” described Dr. Stewart.

The Center for Youth Advocacy and Well-Being has only been around for 6 years but has grown its community connections with churches and counseling centers.

Dr. Stewart believes with more time to grow, those connections can lead to addressing that root cause and help bring down and prevent crime amongst Memphis kids.

She understands children who are in an abusive home can have a difficult time accessing help and resources available to them.

Anyone who may be observing abusive behavior and want to help in some way, Stewart asks they call (901) 448-4200.

She says if there is no answer, there will be a callback within 24 hours.

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