Why Trauma-Informed Courts Are Important

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summers-bioMedia coverage surrounding high-profile cases of campus sexual assault, officer-involved shootings, domestic violence and other incidents in recent months is sparking a national discussion around the experience of victims within our justice system and larger society.

Often missing within this discussion, however, is a thorough treatment of what social science has taught us about the ways victimization can impact survivors both physically and psychologically, and how attitudes and bias can influence the manner in which we view and subsequently treat victims.

As a leader in improving court practice in juvenile and family law cases for 80 years, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) is invested in ensuring justice for those who come before the nation’s courts — and is committed to an open and honest dialogue about the dynamics of victimization within our justice system.

With our ever-increasing understanding of adolescent brain development, neuroscience, psychology and human development in general, there is a growing recognition that these needs are more complex than the basics of food, shelter and safety.

Children experiencing adversity often require assistance to meet developmental needs and tasks, with a focus on promoting resilience and well-being so that they have the same opportunities for positive outcomes as children who have not been involved with the court system.

It is within this context that we consider the role juvenile and family courts can play. The daily interaction with vulnerable populations, combined with the inherent powers of the state, make juvenile and family courts ideally suited to play a strategic role in efforts to promote healing and reduce trauma. To do this, courts must become trauma-responsive by understanding and promoting the conditions of healing for children and families who come before them.

The NCJFCJ would like the general population to know and understand the education that is involved in making our juvenile and family courts informed about trauma.

Conditions of healing

There are many potential ways to work with children and families who have experienced trauma. Within the literature on trauma and resilience, there are three common conditions of healing. They include (1) need for safety, (2) promotion of self-determination, and (3) enhancement of positive social connections.

Need for safety

Safety is a critical component of healing from a traumatic experience. In order to engage in self-soothing, or other coping skills, one has to feel like they are out of immediate danger. Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theorizes human safety is only second to basic survival needs (oxygen, food and water). Further, they need to consistently feel safe across environments such as at work, home, school and in court. This often requires the reduction or elimination of environmental stressors that may trigger memories of a traumatic event and subsequent flight, fight or freeze responses.

Courts can help support the need for safety by:

  • Examining the courtroom and courthouse for environmental stressors (e.g., excessive temperatures, loud noises, yelling, confusing signage) and reducing or eliminating these as possible.
  • Ensuring victims have a safe place to wait for their hearing separate from their abusers.
  • Creating a child-friendly waiting area and courtroom to reduce the anxiety of youth who attend their hearings.
  • Implementing a policy that eliminates presumptive shackling for juvenile offenders appearing in court.

Promotion of self-determination

A second condition of healing is self-determination or “agency.” As trauma often occurs when an event is forced upon someone (e.g., something bad happens outside their control), it is important to provide opportunities for victims to re-establish real and meaningful control over as many aspects of their life as possible. This often means giving them choices and a voice in decisions that are made in their case.

Courts can help promote self-determination by:

  • Giving youth and parents an opportunity to have a voice in the system. Research on procedural justice clearly indicates that parties given a voice in the system (i.e., given a chance to be meaningfully heard) are more likely to be satisfied with the process, no matter the outcome.
  • Providing opportunities for youth and parents to be part of the decision-making process. Even small choices (e.g., whether morning or afternoon works better for them to come to court) can substantially impact how people feel about their involvement in the process.
  • Treating all parties with respect. Speaking directly to a parent or youth and addressing them by name (i.e., not mom or dad — but Ms. or Mr. Smith), can help engage them in the process and increase their perception of identity, “mattering” and personal agency.

Enhancement of positive social connections

A final consideration for promoting conditions of healing is social connections. Traumatic experiences can leave victims socially isolated. Connections with others can nurture critical support networks and resources to promote healing, among other benefits. The literature on resiliency demonstrates the importance of positive social connections for both adults and youth.

Courts can help enhance positive social connections by:

  • Identifying relatives — even extended relatives or close friends of the family — on both the paternal and maternal side who may be willing to serve as support persons for the child or family.
  • Having parents and youth self-identify support persons and inviting these persons to be part of the court process whenever possible.
  • Maintaining connections with “pro-social persons of character” within the community whenever possible, especially for youth who have been removed from the home.

The NCJFCJ has announced a new resolution on adolescent brain development training for juvenile and family court judges, court personnel and service providers.

What the organization wants the public to know is that they are urging juvenile and family court judges to understand, anticipate and respond to the behavior of adolescents by holding them accountable in developmentally appropriate ways. Judges have a unique opportunity as leaders in their community to understand and apply what they have learned about trauma to create a healing environment that can improve outcomes of children and families across the country.

Ultimately, the court has an important role in the lives of vulnerable children and families by leveraging its status to promote healing.

Dr. Alicia Summers is the program director for research and evaluation for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ). She is responsible for designing, coordinating and overseeing research and program evaluation activities that support fulfillment of the NCJFCJ’s 80-year-long commitment to ensure fair, timely, equal, effective and trauma-informed justice to children and families involved in the juvenile and family court system.

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