In today’s world, academics, practitioners and even lay people throw around terms or buzzwords such as “best practices” or “evidence-based practices” or “transformation efforts” when discussing juvenile justice practices and needs. These phrases are embedded in every conversation, training session and publication specific to juvenile justice. Yet too often these terms remain vague and disconnected from our daily work with juveniles.
One of these buzzwords is the term “trauma.” I openly admit that our court service unit until recent years only addressed trauma issues as it related to female offenders and only after the girls penetrated into the deep end of the system.
Such a practice continued until, as an organization, we:
- openly acknowledged the potential existence of trauma in the lives of all those we serve
- committed to learning appropriate ways of identifying trauma and
- implemented a systemwide process for addressing trauma.
Our court service unit is fortunate to have an embedded therapeutic group home for girls. It was here we saw the impact that traumatic life events have on the neurological and emotional development of the girls in the program. We took steps within the program to create “trauma-safe” counseling environments and trained staff on different intervention modalities. These interventions assist clients suffering from traumatic life events that in part led to their involvement with the juvenile justice system.
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While we were doing a good job at addressing trauma in that therapeutic environment, we identified an obvious gap in services. The fact that we were waiting to address traumatic life events until the youth was removed from their community, home and school did a disservice to our children. Instead we recognized that addressing such issues early on in the justice process could improve short- and long-term outcomes for those we serve.
Over the next several years, we conducted occasional trainings on topics specific to trauma such as retraumatization, interviewing clients of the opposite sex and how to ask difficult or personal questions. However, these trainings were few and far between. We allowed the sensitive nature surrounding the trauma issue, and frankly the fear of doing more harm than good, to inhibit us in moving forward. We struggled to implement an effective strategy to become a fully trauma-informed and trauma-responsive organization.
After we identified the “fear factor” associated with even uttering the word trauma, we were able to develop a better understanding around the importance of addressing trauma and the impact it has on the population we serve. This occurred through a series of trainings regarding the very existence of significant amounts of trauma in the lives of juvenile offenders, the importance of addressing trauma when seeking improved outcomes for children and how to effectively engage children in a trauma-specific conversation.
This allowed the organization to move from being trauma-scared to becoming trauma-informed. As a result of training and lots of practicing, we have made tremendous strides in the recognition of trauma and how to appropriately address the issue with our clients. In the past three years we implemented a basic trauma training required for all agency employees that has been adopted for all county employees.
In addition, we have worked to educate not just our employees but our partners, including judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors, on the importance of addressing trauma in our clients as well as secondary and vicarious trauma in ourselves.
We also established an interagency trauma response team designed to develop, implement and support trauma-informed practices, assuring the agency responds responsibly to the impact of trauma on clients and their families. We developed a resource guide to aid probation officers and other staff when making community referrals. To better meet our clients’ needs, we are participating in a pilot study of the STRESS assessment tool designed to identify trauma experiences and symptoms in juveniles. Staff use this assessment when completing social history reports to inform case planning and to guide community referrals when needed.
Once we were able to set the fear of addressing trauma aside and embrace the need to include the impact of trauma in our case management decision-making and service delivery, we realized that secondary trauma, the trauma staff endure daily, needed to be addressed as well. Our interagency trauma team leads this effort, providing support and training with the goal of empowering staff to build resiliency, meet the needs of their clients and maintain a healthy work/life balance.
In an effort to make sure staff and managers are aware of secondary trauma and the need for taking care of themselves mentally and physically, we implemented specialized training, encouraged the usage of “working from home” options and prepared a guide for accessing free mental health and physical health service within the community.
Acknowledging the existence of trauma and its impact on service delivery and client outcomes has proven to be one of the best things we have done as part of our overall juvenile justice transformation efforts. Conversations about trauma, especially when asking highly sensitive questions involving a child’s past experience, are not easy and are not comfortable.
That being said, we can no longer ignore the presence of trauma in the lives of those we serve if we are truly committed to fulfilling our role as change agents. Now that we know better, we should do better.
I openly admit that transitioning from avoiding the trauma issue to becoming a trauma-informed and responsive organization wasn’t easy, but the value of that transformation is facilitating better outcomes for the children we serve. If we as service providers don’t take the trauma issue straight on, we are doing the children who are counting on us for help a disservice.
Robert A. Bermingham Jr. is the director of court services for the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in Fairfax, Virginia, and serves as a member of the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice’s Probation System Review Practice Network.
This column has been updated.