Her lecture – “Race, Adolescence, and Trauma: The Criminalization of Black Youth in America” – combined research from her new book The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth and her experience representing young Black children in the Washington D.C. court system.
Henning is the Blume Professor of Law and Director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative at Georgetown Law, where she and her law students represent youth accused of delinquency in Washington, D.C.
She is currently the Director of the Mid-Atlantic Juvenile Defender Center and was previously the Lead Attorney for the Juvenile Unit of the D.C. Public Defender Service. She has been representing children accused of a crime for more than 25 years and has written extensively on race, adolescence, and policing. Her teaching even extends to state agencies where her workshops teach about the impact of racial bias in the juvenile and criminal legal systems.
During her two-and-a-half decades working with children, only four she has represented have been white. This led her to wonder if this disparity occurred in other areas of the country and how it might affect Black youth physically, mentally, emotionally, and if it may have an impact on their development.
She found that her hypothesis was true, disparities occur across the country. In New York, Black youth make up only 16 percent of the population ages 7-17, but 59 percent of children in detention are Black.
She noted that this inequity can contribute to stress, fear, distrust of authority, and, in turn, increased trauma.
“One of the biggest ways policing affects adolescence is in adolescent identity formation. It’s one of the most important things that happen in our adolescent years. That’s when we figure out who we are and who we can become,” she said. “Research shows that young people who have more frequent contact with the police are more likely to question their self-worth and if they belong in society.”
During the lecture, she offered solutions to eventually reduce trauma:
reduce the footprint of police in the lives of youth
invest in alternatives to public safety
ensure developmentally appropriate policing
insist age-appropriate responses are used in cases of youthful offenders
focus on relationships and interactions that are trauma-informed, thoughtful, and specialized to a child’s age in development
According to Henning, change comes down to education, evidence-based strategies for handling juvenile offenders, and remembering to treat children as children.
She did point out positive progress in New York as the Raise the Age law went into effect in 2019 and ended the automatic charging of 16 and 17-yeard-old as adults. Previously, nearly 28,000 children fell into this age bracket and faced prosecution as adults annually.
“The bottom line or the essence of this conversation is white youth are allowed to enjoy the privileges of adolescence. Adolescence is a social construct that is available to the middle class and to white Americans. The privileges of adolescence include physical safety, public affirmation, adventure, experimentation, and social and academic freedom,” she said. “But for young, Black children [who exhibit] those same behaviors, they are suspended, expelled, stopped, frisked, arrested, prosecuted, and transferred to adult court at extraordinarily high rates.”
The Katheryn D. Katz ’70 Lecture Series was established in 2014 to focus on the family law topics that Professor Katz made central to her teaching, including domestic violence, gender and the law, children and the law, reproductive rights, and inequality. Previous Katz lectures were delivered by Professors Melissa Breger (2015), Donna Young (2016), Mary A. Lynch (2017), Stephen Clark (2018), Jessica Knouse ’04 of the University of Toledo College of Law (2019), and Rutgers Law School Co-Dean and Professor Kimberly Mutcherson (2020).