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'Generational trauma': Youth for Christ helping at-risk kids break the cycle of incarceration

Prison fence
Facebook/Prison Fellowship

A prominent national youth ministry organization is coming alongside troubled children in an effort to break the cycle of youth incarceration that has impacted many families nationwide from generation to generation. 

Having experienced family members suffering from addiction that has led to incarceration, Chelsie Coleman, 32, is now working in what she calls her “dream job,” sharing the Gospel with incarcerated youth through the Denver-based Youth for Christ’s National Juvenile Justice Ministry. She was named the ministry’s head on Oct. 11. 

“Parents who have faced trauma are often in a cycle, and this pattern is perpetuated in a  multigenerational way,” Coleman told The Christian Post in a recent interview. 

“Kids who get involved in incarceration are usually not in jail due to a crime issue, but it’s a trauma and poverty issue, and they often end up stuck in a cycle of incarceration.”

In many cases, Coleman said, there is a lack of “adequate educational services” combined with “food insecurity” that forces at-risk children to go into “survival mode.” 

“Risk factors, trauma, neglect and abuse are all cyclical in many of these incarcerated children’s lives,” she said. “I think what we are seeing is a cycle of generational trauma.”

Youth for Christ is a national parachurch ministry organization founded in the 1940s that works with local churches to help raise a generation of Christ-followers devoted to social commitment and sharing the love of God. The organization actively pursues “young people who often feel overlooked.”

Coleman said that it’s gratifying to help transform the lives of children who have faced trauma by demonstrating to them the love of Jesus.  

Chelsie Coleman
Chelsie Coleman |

Coleman’s passion for her work comes from a personal place.

Although she has never been incarcerated, there is a history of addiction in her family that has led to some of her family members being incarcerated. 

Not growing up in a Christian household, Coleman recalls wishing that she had someone or something to rely on when she was younger. 

It wasn’t until some friends from school invited her to a youth group that she had an encounter with Jesus that changed her life and her perspectives forever.

Knowing Jesus intimately, she said, helped her to feel loved and valued during some of the toughest years of her adolescent life. 

Coleman hopes her work with Youth For Christ will be a catalyst to inspire incarcerated youth to know and experience Jesus Christ. 

In the same way Coleman saw her family members go to prison, she said many incarcerated youth have been “traumatized” after witnessing cycles of parents or older family members going to prison. 

Through the Juvenile Justice Ministry, Youth For Christ aims to let incarcerated youth know that they are also are made in God’s image and that it's possible to break the cycle of incarceration. The organization fosters mentorships with incarcerated children.

The ministry staff goes into detention centers to hold Bible studies, faith-based recovery justice sessions and other recovery groups for the incarcerated youth.

“I think back to when I was a teenager, I didn’t come to faith because someone tried to convert me. I was around Christians because they showed up and made me feel valued,” Coleman told CP. “This is a population of youth that have higher rates of trauma than any other youth in the country, and we want them to feel loved and valued. We model how healthy relationships should be, and by doing so, we model what a relationship with Jesus can be like.”

Coleman said she seeks to “undo” some of the trauma that incarcerated youth face by sharing that Jesus is available and cares about their everyday lives. 

“We want them to show up and be fully themselves and who Christ wants them to be because a lot of these youth face shame and embarrassment because of what they have done and things they have faced,” Coleman said. “We want to help them to know that God is still writing their story. This isn’t the end, and Jesus can enter into their pain. And we want them to discover, in their time, that they are not defined by shame or embarrassment, but they can be love and they are loved.” 

Research suggests that pretrial youth confinement produces a 33% higher chance of felony recidivism. In some states, Coleman said 80% of young people are re-arrested within three years of their release from incarceration. 

Coleman said that “even with those statistics, governmental systems continue to put adolescents in detention centers.”

“I think the system is inherently retributive and it’s more punishment-oriented instead of restorative-oriented,” Coleman contends. “In some cases, the system becomes part of the issue that is preventing children from being restored and rehabilitated. A lot of kids have substance abuse issues and trauma, and the response isn’t usually to deal with the root cause. But instead, the educational services, probation sanctions and court sanctions can set kids up for failure.”

Coleman said she has witnessed children who have trauma from living in abusive households. Frequently, she said children who have abusive parents will have a lot of anger from the abuse they’ve endured and will be sent to anger management as if anger is the root of their behavior.  

“They tend to want to see a behavior change and they tend not to dig deeper and find out how we can be more trauma-informed and how we best engage these kids,” Coleman said. “We shouldn’t incarcerate trauma. These cycles of children getting caught in the system are really hard to break without appropriate intervention.”

Another issue perpetuating cycles of incarceration in youth, Coleman said, “lies in the hands of those in policy-making positions.”

Those in positions of power who can enact legislation to bring about change for youth are often not in close enough proximity to know about the challenges the incarcerated youth face, she warned. 

Because of this, she believes “the deeper-rooted issues leading to incarceration in youth are oftentimes not even heard or understood," causing the cycle to continue. 

“The only contact that they often have with these children is when they hear the stories of what crimes the children have committed on the news,” she said. “We have a system that is predominantly policy and decision making, and it’s based on what is seen in the media. Proximity is really important. If I didn’t work with these kids closely and form relationships with them, then all I know is what I see in the news about their history of violence or other crimes, etc. And many people in these decision-making positions are not in close proximity with these youth.”

“I think our kids that we meet in the system want to know they are safe and heard,” she added. “We let them know that we don’t care what you’ve done. We care about what you can be and what you are.”

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