How Being Trauma Informed Can Impact Our Judicial System

At Lakeside, we firmly believe having a trauma-informed lens really changes how you see individuals who have been affected by traumatic events in their lives. In our court systems, our judges are exposed to individuals who have had all kinds of adverse child events and/or serious traumatic events in their past. The research about trauma is replete with cause and effect outcomes that can be reflected in crime, violence or other legal offenses. How can being trauma informed help these individuals?

Judges are looking at offenders and victims with a trauma lens

threatening youth with batI think it is both insightful and encouraging to see our judges are becoming trauma-informed. They are looking at offenders with a lens that impacts how they treat these individuals in their court room. Below is an article about this topic found on the web site of the National Council of Juvenile Judges and Family Court Judges in September of 2014.

Trauma-informed judges take gentler approach, administer problem-solving justice to stop cycle of adverse childhood experiences

For a more trauma-informed system of care, juvenile courts and their judges are asked to understand the myriad of underlying factors that affect the lives of juveniles and their families. One of the most pervasive of these factors is exposure to trauma. To be most effective in achieving its mission, the juvenile court must both understand the role of traumatic exposure in the lives of children and engage resources and interventions that address child traumatic stress.

Three judges leading the way to a more trauma-informed system of care are Project ONE Lead Judge Lynn Tepper, Chautauqua County Family Court Judge Judith Claire and Miami Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman. Their gentler approaches in their court rooms, highlighted in this article from ACES Too High News, administer problem-solving justice to stop the cycle of adverse childhood experiences.

For more information about trauma and its effects in the juvenile court room, read the NCJFCJ’s technical assistance bulletin, Ten Things Every Juvenile Court Judges Should Know About Trauma and Delinquency.

This article was previously published on ACES Too High News and written by Ed Finkel 

Three years ago, Judge Lynn Tepper of Florida’s Sixth Judicial Circuit Court in Dade City, FL, learned about the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. The ground-breaking research links childhood abuse and neglect with adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence.

It was like flipping a switch.

“I suddenly had this trauma-informed lens, as we call it. I see it everywhere,” she says, giving an example of someone in front of her on child abuse charges for whom she might recommend counseling and/or anger management. “I have discovered the reality is that when I start asking a few questions, that parent or partner has experienced ACEs,” she says.

The 10 types of childhood trauma measured in the ACE Study are: physical, verbal and sexual abuse, and physical and emotional neglect; a family member who abused alcohol or other drugs, who was depressed or mentally ill, or was in prison; witnessing a mother being abused, and loss of a parent through separation or divorce.

Tepper, a veteran of 37 years on the bench, realized that childhood trauma experienced by the people who ended up in her courtroom was much worse than their paperwork showed. “When you dig down deeper, you wonder how these people get up in the morning,” she says. “I remember thinking at one point, ‘Oh boy, did we blow it all these years on these delinquents.’ ”

Most judges in the United States are unfamiliar with the ACE Study and the research on the neurobiology of toxic stress that has emerged over the last 15 years. But that’s beginning to change in courtrooms across the U.S., due to a number of educational programs aimed at producing trauma-informed judges—and courts. As a result, trauma-informed judges have made three big changes:

  • They’ve modified their courts to be safer and less threatening to defendants with histories of childhood trauma and who are often already traumatized.
  • They recognize that trauma is passed from one generation to another, and take a two- or three-generational approach in child abuse and neglect cases.
  • Because, they say, the traditional approach in criminal justice continues the traumatization of children, youth and families, they’re taking a solution-oriented approach.

The traditional approach doesn’t work anymore, says Chautauqua County (N.Y.) Family Court Judge Judith Claire, because it fails to address the underlying issues. By simply entering an order of protection against domestic violence, for example, the courts don’t teach family members healthy patterns of functioning that many have never learned, she says. Those patterns include how to make good decisions, how to deal constructively with emotions, and what constitutes healthy parenting if they have not received that blessing themselves.

“With problem-solving justice and the trauma-informed delivery of services, you hopefully are addressing those underlying problems,” says Claire, who became trauma-informed through an education program with the Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care at the University of Buffalo. “You’re recognizing that you’re not dealing with an isolated situation, and unless you break that cycle, that next generation is going to have the same issues, or the parents before you are going to keep coming back.”

Claire notes that, over the last 15 years, many family courts have shifted from “the revolving door of justice, which doesn’t help anybody,” to more of a problem-solving approach, and she believes greater awareness about ACEs and trauma will help such an approach continue to take root. “There’s no question that the overwhelming majority of people who come to our court have experienced some sort of trauma,” she says.

She describes the results of such transformations in the courtroom as “fairly remarkable, very successful, and maybe even astonishing.” She says that “in the past, we said to people, ‘Here’s what you need to do, here’s what your problem is.’ And then we’d shake our heads and say, ‘Why did that person not do those things? What’s wrong with them?’ That didn’t work. If you keep doing something that doesn’t work, you need to perhaps figure out what you’re doing wrong.

Dr. Mimi Graham, director of the Center for Prevention and Early Intervention Policy at Florida State University, where Graham learned about ACEs and trauma-informed practices, explains the change in approach to being trauma-informed by citing a fable: People see babies floating down the river near their town, and they pull them to safety one at a time. Finally, somebody figures out that they had better go upstream and find out who’s tossing the babies into the river.

“We’ve had quantum leaps in neuroscience, around [emotional] attachments and the science of adversity,” she says. “We know what works in helping to treat and heal the adversity, and yet we’ve got so many adults walking around whose childhood adversities were never treated.”

A kinder, gentler courtroom

In one of the first cases after Tepper had her revelation, a young man who had allegedly sexually assaulted a sibling appeared in her court. When she looked at his rap sheet, it listed about a dozen battery cases. “That’s consistent with a child who’s been a victim of sexual molestation that’s not been revealed,” she says. “I started digging around with him and found out he was a victim of sex abuse in the foster care system in California. And nobody [in the court system] knew about it. He had even gone to treatment for sex abuse. I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, how could we have missed this?’ ”

Now, Tepper is always on the lookout for such histories in people with a violent past. “To me that is a clear indicator, I bet somebody’s been a victim of child sex abuse,” she says. “It’s almost like I have radar to spot the telltale signs.”

She cites the example of a young woman who had her first child at age 14 as a result of being raped, and yet the system was treating her as if she was irresponsible. “Somebody committed a crime against you,” she told the girl. “Our goal is to get you to somebody you are comfortable talking to, so you can get control over the past. I want you to be happy. You’re entitled to be happy.”

After the defendants hear such kinder, gentler words, Tepper says, “there’s a tremendous transformation in 20 minutes. Over and over again, it’s just vast changes. Moms who have lost seven kids in the past [to the child welfare system] can get it right. We’re at the tip of the iceberg, in terms of what we can do to transform the court system.”

Kudos to these judges in being both fair and wise.

I am thrilled at the potential for the juvenile justice trauma informed movement to expand. Their impact to the outcomes of the courts in how they treat both victims and offenders can be far-reaching.

I think the results will encourage judges and provide much better information and wisdom into how to deal with the many difficult decisions that they face each day. I am so appreciative of judges who deeply care and who are using the current research as a decision-making influence in how they administrate justice and help those who are in needing assistance in legal sphere of influence.



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