As Flint residents deal with the consequences of poisoned water, lawmakers, activists, and locals are already predicting what the crisis means for the future of the city.
Mayor Karen Weaver has pointed out that the disaster could devastate the juvenile justice system in the future.
“This damage to children is irreversible and can cause effects to a child’s IQ, which will result in learning disabilities…and an increase in the juvenile justice system,” she said when a state of emergency over lead levels was declared in December.
The current juvenile justice system in Flint is already rife with problems. It doesn’t have money to repair a detention center with non-functioning mechanical systems. Teenagers who are 17 years old are tried and sentenced as adults and housed with older offenders. Thousands of kids are arrested in school for minor disciplinary infractions.
With the water crisis still unresolved, experts believe the worst of the physical and psychological damage is still yet to come. And when it does, it will hit the already-troubled system hard.
“When children whose brains are actively developing are impacted by lead poisoning in particular…it can have a very deleterious effect on kids’ IQ and, ultimately, their behavior,” Frank Vandervort, clinical professor of law and co-founder of the Juvenile Justice Clinic at the University of Michigan, told ThinkProgress. “The kids who are likely to come in contact with the juvenile justice system tend to be kids who have had developmental disabilities, who have mental health problems.”
All disciplinary things seem to be handled more and more by police, rather than by school officials
Lead poisoning causes mental retardation, shortened attention spans, and other behavioral disorders in children. It specifically damages the section of the brain that manages impulses and emotions. And recent research has linked childhood lead poisoning to violent crime. A study of children in Chicago found a shocking correlation between aggravated assault rates over time and exposure to lead. A similar study of young adults in Cincinnati, who had lead poisoning in their blood as babies and small children, had a higher risk of arrest depending on how much lead they were exposed to. “Most kids at some point in their adolescence violate a law,” Vandervort continued. “They drink and drive, they drink and are underage, they try marijuana, they smoke cigarettes…shoplift. But the kids who are more apt to be prosecuted are the kids who tend to have more severe problems.”
And for children who are already over-criminalized in Flint’s schools, impaired brain development could make things worse.
Recent data shows that thousands of children have been funneled through the school-to-prison pipeline. Flint had just over 6,500 K-12 students during the 2014–2015 school year. According Rodd Monts off ACLU Michigan, there were 11,718 disciplinary incidents. Those included 6,800 suspensions and 2953 crowd and safety incidents — arrests or referrals for arrest. Black kids were on the receiving end of 83 percent of those disciplinary actions.
Monts told ThinkProgress that zero-tolerance policies for non-threatening behavior, such as truancy and disobeying teachers, are fueling the problem. He recalled a mass suspension involving some 40 kids who were wearing hoodies to keep warm.
Vandervort also pointed to the growing police presence on school grounds.
“What I have seen in Flint…is that all disciplinary things seem to be handled more and more by police, rather than by school officials,” he said. “Every kid who gets into a fist fight in junior high school, every kid who breaks the rules at school, seems to end up in a delinquency case. It’s really exacerbated there.”
Generally, suspensions and expulsions increase the likelihood that kids will drop out of school, because they fall behind in their schoolwork. Without a complete education, they are more inclined to commit crime and wind up in the juvenile justice system. And research shows that interacting with law enforcement and ending up in the justice system increases kids’ chances of committing more serious offenses in the future.
Should the current water crisis impact kids’ brain development and behavior, students in Flint may have an even larger target on their backs when it comes to disciplinary action.
I talked to a 15-year-old [who] could name eight people — without thinking about it — who had been shot
Besides the lead’s effects, the juvenile justice system could also be impacted by the trauma the water crisis has caused.
Flint’s youth are already embroiled in a chain of poverty and crime. Delinquent behavior is linked to the fallout from the auto industry’s collapse decades ago, which left the city in disarray.
“Flint is a relatively small city, but it has all of the issues that a large urban center has. You see all of the same problems you would see in Detroit or D.C.: poverty, educational problems, community violence, [and] drug abuse is high,” Vandervort explained. “It’s a community that has a lot of stressors and a lot of challenges.”
A University of Michigan study concluded that at-risk kids in Flint who have witnessed violence are more likely to have a mental illness, like PTSD, and commit crime in the future.
“I talked to a 15-year-old [who] could name eight people — without thinking about it — who had been shot: friends, neighbors, uncles, cousins,” Vandervort said. “When you start to think about the level of trauma that is for a 15-year old-boy, whose dad’s in prison and whose mom is a drug addict, that’s a typical profile of a kid we see in Flint. That’s not unusual.”
Adding a public health disaster to the mix could make things worse for youth there.
In other cities that have experienced catastrophic events, young people’s behavior has been shaped by the trauma over time. In New Orleans, for instance, kids in the juvenile justice system have one thing in common: Hurricane Katrina. They overwhelmingly mention that their lives were in danger during the hurricane. Ten years later, trauma from the storm colors the crimes that land kids in the system. They steal because their families lost everything. They lash out in heavily-policed schools. They smoke weed and drink to cope.
Down the line, Flint’s kids could end up in a similar situation.
The debacle is already traumatizing children. A new Time Magazine cover story describes a 2-year-old in Flint who was poisoned by lead and has rashes all over is body. Now, he is terrified of water and screams in pain whenever it touches his skin.