Home News Center YJLI Fellow Victor Cabral Advocates for Healing and Trauma-Informed Care

YJLI Fellow Victor Cabral Advocates for Healing and Trauma-Informed Care

July 30, 2021
Tracey Tucker and Jonnay Anthony

Graphic with Photo of Victor Cabral and Quote


How did you get into youth justice reform?

I was a business development representative working in the front office of a steel mill; and, about six months into that work, I realized I wasn’t living in my purpose. At the time, I had a connection to a CEO of a charter school who was looking for someone to assist with school truancy.  So I started working as a type of truancy officer. Many of the youth at the charter school were attending night school or justice-involved. Initially, I thought I would meet with youth and give them motivational talks about the importance of getting an education.

The more I got to know the youth and the more I learned about the system, I realized the traps that youth face when involved with the system. It really bothered me how school social workers in the district were often put in a position to be on the side of the court. I knew that I held a different perspective about the needs of youth and their families and that the solution to school attendance wasn’t pouring on fines to families who were struggling. My discomfort with the system grew exponentially when a mother sentenced to 48 hours in Berks County Prison for her children’s truancy violations died 24 hours into her sentence from cardiac failure. 

I was also doing my own healing work at this time, and I knew I wanted to become a therapist. So, I became a therapist and started working with youth in my community. It wasn’t long before probation officers and other community members started to seek me out to provide support and counseling for youth in the community. After graduating with my Master’s in 2019, I started working for an organization called Youth Justice running a program for justice-involved girls. Again, I observed how young people weren’t getting their needs met through the system. Around this time, I was selected for Governor Wolf’s William Penn Fellowship and began working for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. There I met two YJLI alumni who were and continue to do reform work in Pennsylvania, and I began to work on both the policy level and individual level in seeking change for our youth.

Tell us about your advocacy project. 

My advocacy project has evolved over time.  When I started YJLI, I was actually working within the Department of Human Services. Since then, I was transferred to the Governor’s Office of Advocacy and Reform. My focus has been the implementation of a trauma-informed care plan in Pennsylvania. When I applied to the program, I was working with PEW Research Center and Crime and Justice Institute, and other state agencies to develop recommendations for Pennsylvania youth justice reform. We recently released those recommendations, and I hope they, along with the continued work around trauma-informed care, will impact the system in a positive way.  

My initial YJLI advocacy project was to ensure that programs at the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services were not only trauma-informed but included an equity lens. For example, if I am working with a young person that grew up in a violent area and witnessed violence in their community, they cannot be diagnosed with PTSD based on current diagnostic criteria. In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, the therapist would have to tie the diagnosis to a specific incident or trigger. This is a complete denial of the experiences of Black and Brown people, and there are a lot of models that don’t include us and our experiences.  While I can not be the voice of the whole community, at the very least I can raise awareness that the experiences of Black and Brown communities must be represented. I can make room for the people that have the knowledge by insisting that those most impacted by our policies be included in the solutions to what confronts their communities. 

What is your dream for youth justice?

My first tattoo is the symbol for “ubuntu,” a word rooted in African Bantu languages that means: “I am what I am because of who we all are.” I read an article about a man that had committed an offense and the tribe put him in the center of the circle and told him all the good things about himself. My vision is to move toward this type of healing-centered engagement and away from punitive approaches. 

When you are punitive you disconnect and alienate people. I want to see a societal shift in the way that we treat each other - a system based on love and treating people with respect and dignity. We judge others and in that judgment, we deny that within us lies the capacity to commit the same behavior and offense. We fail to recognize that the behaviors manifested by our youth are a reflection of us all. My dream is to not have detention centers or congregate care but a healing system based on restorative practices with services available in the community.

What motivates you?

My goal each day is to take care of my family and work toward something larger than myself. I grew up going to court with family members and a lot of my friends were involved with the system. I suppose it was always a part of me to be an advocate. I have always been motivated by seeing other people grow. I want to see people thrive and do better. I’m motivated to advocate for anyone who is oppressed but youth justice holds a special position in my advocacy work. It always comes back to how I can truly serve my community.

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