Psychology, Child Welfare and Our Justice System

Judge Bobbe Bridge

Dr Eric Trupin

Conversations with former Washington State Supreme Court Justice Bobbe Bridge and Dr. Eric Trupin about Colton Harris-Moore and the path young people like him have through the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. (Click on their names or photos for more information about these two top experts).


Beyond the obvious failures in modeling and guidance during Colt’s upbringing that didn’t offer him a good start at adapting to normal society, his story is one of multiple “system” failures. A functional society depends first on good parenting and personal responsibility, but we’ve made the decision as citizens and tax payers to also create various safety nets. These systems are designed to help not only the affected individuals, but the community as a whole, which suffers greatly when kids go wrong.

“There were all kinds of missed opportunities with Colton,” says former Washington State supreme court justice Bobbe Bridge, who created and leads the Center for Child and Youth Justice, a non-profit that’s been internationally lauded for its efforts to reform the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. “The system didn’t react to protect him. In his case, it refused him.”

The story of a child with a dozen Child Protective Service contacts starting before he was one year old can amount to what Bridge calls a “stunning neglect of duty” on the part of his case workers. She says, though, that there is often a perception among those professionals that because there are few resources on the back end (counselors, therapists or, when necessary, foster homes), it’s best just to leave things the way they are. “It’s especially difficult when parents are not receptive and cooperative.” However, she says, that’s no excuse. “In those cases, somebody has to bite the bullet and move things forward. That’s why we have a child protective system in the first place! The child’s best interest is supposed to trump the parent’s. Somebody has to step up before there are twelve reports.”

Intervening for kids like Colt, Bridge says, is a matter of “the sooner the better.”

“The newest information those of us involved in child welfare have learned, from neurology research, is about infant brain development and what happens to their synapses between zero and three years old. Babies are not just big blobs. There’s a developmental sequence that either happens when it’s supposed to – prompted by the right kind of bonding with his parents and the right kinds of stimulation – or it never does. You can’t make that up later. When neglect occurs during that time, it can cause insurmountable damage.”

Bridge also sees issues in the practice of prescribing drugs for children without treating the underlying problems. “We have a system where medications are often used to ‘fix’ these kids, whatever that means, but then they’re returned to the same environment where the same things happen all over again. That’s blaming the kids and trying to ‘fix’ them for something that’s actually broken within the family.”

In reviewing the public facts of Colt’s background and case, Dr. Eric Trupin – University of Washington professor, child psychologist, and director of the state’s Division of Public Behavior Health and Justice Policy – says he doesn’t see any evidence “in terms of serious psychiatric disorder” in Colt. “He obviously has conduct problems. He came from a family that was fairly disrupted, but there are kids that come from disrupted families that do perfectly okay. However, Colton didn’t incorporate a set of values and rules aligned with society.”

As unique as Colt was for the audacious plane thefts and his ability to stay at large for so long while committing so many crimes within the same area, Trupin says there are many kids who are in the same basic situation.

“Get a reasonably smart kid with a heightened amount of energy who starts to violate rules around the age of 10. He gets a lot of attention for doing things that aren’t regular achievements. He’s not singing in the church choir, he’s not on the basketball team, not doing artwork that’s hanging up in the classroom. He’s not getting feedback from the adults in his world around good stuff, just for the bad things he does. The effect is that you teach the kid that it’s only that bad behavior that’s going to get him attention.”

Dr. Trupin says the way to intervene with a kid like Colt is to promote his skills. “You need to validate that he’s pretty kooky, and you wouldn’t want to take all that away from him, but you want to teach him a constructive way to get the attention he desires.” One component of Colt’s escalating behavior, says Trupin, was to get adulation. “Otherwise, why wasn’t he committing crimes that were relatively secretive? He liked the visibility of what he was doing.”

Though he acknowledges that there’s never a guarantee any treatment will succeed, and that so much depends on being able to work in an assertive way within the child’s family context, Trupin says the obvious strategy for dealing with Colt would have been to “provide opportunities for him to do some really risky things that he would take great pleasure in, whether rock climbing, driving motorcycles, or learning how to fly airplanes, and using that as an incentive.” Trupin says there are counseling programs operating in Washington State that use tools exactly like that, but they were apparently never made available to Colt.

“Even when we have the money for what we know are best-practice therapies,” says Judge Bridge, “it’s not spent equally across the state.” She says that getting resources dedicated to keeping kids out of the justice system as opposed to punishing them once they’re in is always a struggle despite the latest data showing conclusively that prevention and early intervention work much better for both the kids and society at large.

“For the cost of giving up four beds in a juvenile detention center, you can fund an early intervention program that would prevent a large number of kids from ending up in jail,” she says. “The politicians, however, worry that the public will say they’re soft on crime.” Bridge says one overall failure is that we haven’t spent the necessary effort to educate the public about what the research and data proves actually works and what doesn’t. “There is,” she says, “a definite lack of political will.”

When it comes to intervention versus retribution, the default answer in the United States has always been to add more prison cells. A full one percent of our adult population is currently in prison, which is the highest incarceration rate in the world. And one out of 31 US adults is either in jail, on parole or on probation.

Both Dr Trupin and Judge Bridge agree that Colt needs to be punished for what he did, but both would rather there was more flexibility when it came to cases like this where the offender is non-violent. “The problem with our whole justice system in many ways is that there are not enough incentives to do things that are going to change your life,” says Trupin. “I wish that someone like Colton could be managed more like a juvenile even though he’s over 18. In the juvenile system, he would be forced to go to school and therapy or there’d be consequences. Once he’s in the adult system, though, he can choose not to progress with his education and instead can go the route of ‘Gee, I’m gonna learn a whole bunch of stuff from a lot of people in here that’s going to make me even better at being antisocial and criminal.’”

Judge Bridge says recent advances in neurology point to the fallacy of treating people as fully functional adults once they turn 18. “We now know that kids don’t develop the frontal lobe of their brain until age 23 or 24,” she says. “And that’s in the normal course of maturation, not in somebody who we would presume has some stunted growth in brain development. That frontal lobe is the decision-making part of the brain, and it’s dependant on nurture. Kids need guidance and assistance to learn how to make those correct, mature decisions. Where did Colt ever develop those skills? Nowhere as far as I can see.”

There will be little offered within the adult system, says Bridge, to help Colt work through any issues. “He’ll be coming out at a pretty young age, but with what skills and what treatment? What’s the 30-year-old Colton Harris-Moore going to look like?”

According to Trupin, within that harsh prison system it’s going to be left up to Colt to prepare himself for the rest of his life. But he sees some possibility. “If he could get his high school education and have the hope of using some of his innate skills, and if he can actually be enthusiastic about his future, then his prognosis would be good.”

The fact that Colt successfully avoided falling into substance abuse is both remarkable and a big mark on the positive side of his prognosis. And Trupin says there’s promise in the idea that Colt apparently sees himself as a player in his life, acknowledging that he did wrong and hurt people instead of blaming others. Examples of Colt’s capacity for affection and empathy are also good signs. “Often that’s gone, particularly with kids who haven’t experienced that,” he says. “They become pretty hardened and view most people as somebody they can get something from. When someone is nice to them, they think it’s only because they want something.”

*At the time of these interviews, neither Justice Bridge nor Dr Trupin knew that Colt was going to be receiving additional therapy beyond whatever the state corrections system offers all prisoners. For Colt, embracing the therapy (as he says he will), is a terrific opportunity that will greatly increase his chances for a good outcome and future. As for all the other prisoners without access to additional and customized therapy… they’re still on their own.