Sacramento County Program Helps Detained Youth Learn to Regulate Their Emotions
Two special rooms within the Sacramento County Youth Detention Facility are having a strong, positive impact on the residents. They are called “multi-sensory de-escalation rooms,” and the County is the first juvenile detention facility in the United States to open such a program.
These de-escalation rooms provide a safe environment where the facility’s residents can calm down and regulate their feelings without use of force or being put in isolation. This is a skill that can serve them well when they are back in the community.
“We’re really seeing the positive impacts of this program throughout our juvenile institution,” explains Sacramento County Chief Probation Officer Lee Seale. “While staff has always put an emphasis on working with kids to reduce incidents of non-compliance and fights, this gives us one more tool.”
The multi-sensory de-escalation rooms have particular themes. The Cove has an underwater theme, with fish painted on the walls and blue tint covering the overhead lights. The Treehouse takes participants into a room painted with a forest. The colors are soothing, the environment relaxed. The rooms are stocked with a variety of games and exercises designed to engage all the senses to stimulate motor and cognitive skills.
A typical visit to the room is about 30 minutes, with each resident given the option of how to spend that time. The goal is to help the youths develop self-regulation skills through sensory activities and personal engagement with trained staff.
“It’s a space to engage kids, to get those feelings out in the open where we can work with these kids and walk them through their problems,” Chief Seale says.
Nathaniel is a resident who visits the de-escalation room about three times a month. On the day CSAC staff visited the facility, Nathaniel was very agitated after spending the morning in court only to have his attorney fail to show. A session in the room allows him to leave in a much better frame of mind. “I leave more calm and understanding,” he says. “I understand why I was mad and how to fix it.”
Probation Assistant Valerie Clark works with the youth in the de-escalation rooms: “We meet residents where they are at (emotionally). … Listening to their stories, their backgrounds and how they don’t have that support. It’s important to be a positive person in their lives,” she says. “We provide various healthy coping mechanisms that they can take back to their room. Teach them ways to regulate their emotions.”
Chris Eldridge, a Mental Health Program Coordinator for Sacramento County, explains how many of the youths have been exposed to multiple traumatic experiences growing up, and that exposure to stress and trauma can have an effect on brain development. This may inhibit their internal ability to control their behavior and rely on external controls.
Being incarcerated can cause significant stress for youths. This stress can be compounded by a number of issues, such as a bad news in court, or an emotionally negative phone call with family. And often that stress is not visible.
“Bringing them into the room, they are able to discharge that energy in a safe environment where they aren’t being penalized, then helping them to work through it,” Eldridge says.
Before the development of the de-escalation rooms, many of these youths were sent to their sleeping rooms and they thought they were being punished. The new program can help transition them from a survival response to using more skills where they are able to reason and understand why they are feeling the way they are, Eldridge explains.
“What we’ve learned is that punishment alone does not work,” Eldridge says. “What can we do to better their circumstances so they don’t re-offend?”
Statistics support the positive impacts Sacramento County’s efforts, which include the de-escalation rooms, are having. Use-of-force incidents have decreased by more than 40 percent, and recommended use of room confinement instances have dropped by more than one-third.
Chief Seale predicts juvenile facilities throughout the state and country will develop similar programs because “everybody needs opportunities to be engaged with youth positively within our juvenile halls.”
Leon is a resident at the Sacramento County Juvenile Facility who uses the room regularly. “I’m learning patience, I’m learning tolerance,” he explains. “I now know how to react differently to situations, how to stay calm and think about the best option on what to do. Before I never knew how to talk about what was going on in my life. In here, I can take my time and express myself.”
Resident Nathaniel sums up the positive impact of the de-escalation rooms. “If I had this room when I was a kid, I would be a whole lot better,” he says. “I wouldn’t have anger issues. I’d have people understanding me.”
This Sacramento County program is a recipient of a 2018 CSAC Challenge Award, which spotlights the most innovative programs in county government.