Things Every Juvenile Court Judge Should Know About Trauma

As anyone may guess, many juveniles who are in the juvenile justice system have extremely difficult if not traumatic backgrounds. Much of their behavior relates directly to particular adverse childhood events that took place in their lives. More and more, we are finding that so many are trauma-impacted and still able to heal and recover. However, punitive measures will not provide healing for trauma. This is why we need judges to be trauma-informed, to understand neurological dynamics and accompanying behaviors, including possible ensuing PTSD, arising from traumatic events in their lives.

Juvenile justices should be trauma-informed

In this article by Kristine Buffington, Carly Dierkhising and Shawn Marsh they have discussed 10 things everything juvenile justice judge should know. I think it is well written and compelling.


The majority of youth who develop a pattern of delinquent behaviors and experience subsequent juvenile court involvement have faced both serious adversities and traumatic experiences. Research continues to show that most youth who are detained in juvenile detention centers have been exposed to both community and family violence and many have been threatened with, or been the direct target of, such violence (Abram et al., 2004; Wiig, Widom, & Tuell, 2003). Studies also demonstrate that youth who have multiple exposures to violence or victimization are at higher risk for mental health problems, behavioral problems, substance abuse, and delinquent behaviors (Ford, Chapman, Hawke, & Albert, 2007; Ford, Elhai, Connor, & Frueh, in press; Saunders, Williams, Smith, & Hanson, 2005; Tuell, 2008).

The mission of the juvenile court is complex.

Children need effective discipline to grow up emotionally and relationally healthyThe court is tasked with protecting society, safeguarding the youth and families that come to its attention, and holding delinquent youth accountable while supporting their rehabilitation. In order to successfully meet these sometimes contradictory goals, the courts, and especially the juvenile court judge, are asked to understand the myriad 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. Accordingly, the purpose of this technical assistance bulletin is to highlight 10 crucial areas that judges need to be familiar with in order to best assist traumatized youth who enter the juvenile justice system.

Studies also demonstrate that youth who have multiple exposures to violence or victimization are at higher risk for mental health problems, behavioral problems, substance abuse, and delinquent behaviors.

A traumatic experience is an event that threatens someone’s life, safety, or well-being.

Trauma can include a direct encounter with a dangerous or threatening event, or it can involve witnessing the endangerment or suffering of another living being. A key condition that makes these events traumatic is that they can overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope, and elicit intense feelings such as fear, terror, helplessness, hopelessness, and despair. Traumatic events include: emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; neglect; physical assaults; witnessing family, school, or community violence; war; racism; bullying; acts of terrorism; fires; serious accidents; serious injuries; intrusive or painful medical procedures; loss of loved ones; abandonment; and separation.

A key condition that makes these events traumatic is that they can overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope, and elicit intense feelings such as fear, terror, helplessness, hopelessness, and despair. Key Definitions Acute Trauma: “A single traumatic event that is limited in time. An earthquake, dog bite, or motor vehicle accident are all examples of acute traumas” (Child Welfare Committee (CWC)/National Center for Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) 2008, p. 6).

Chronic Trauma: “Chronic trauma may refer to multiple and varied (traumatic) events such as a child who is exposed to domestic violence at home, is involved in a car accident, and then becomes a victim of community violence, or longstanding trauma such as physical abuse or war.” (CWC/NCTSN, 2008, p. 6).

Complex trauma: “Complex trauma is a term used by some experts to describe both exposure to chronic trauma—usually caused by adults entrusted with the child’s care, such as parents or caregivers—and the immediate and long-term impact of such exposure on the child.” (CWC/NCTSN, 2008, p. 7).

Hypervigilance: “Abnormally increased arousal, responsiveness to stimuli, and scanning of the environment for threats” (Dorland’s Medical Dictionary for Health Consumers, 2007). Hypervigilance is a symptom that adults and youth can develop after exposure to dangerous and life-threatening events (Ford et al., 2000; Sipprelle, 1992). The American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic criteria manual (DSM-IV-TR) identifies it as a symptom related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Resiliency: “A pattern of positive adaptation in the context of past or present adversity” (Wright & Masten, 2005, p. 18).

Traumatic Reminders: “A traumatic reminder is any person, situation, sensation, feeling, or thing that reminds a child of a traumatic event. When faced with these reminders, a child may re-experience the intense and disturbing feelings tied to the original trauma.” (CWC/NCTSN, 2008, p. 12).

Child traumatic stress can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Rates of PTSD in juvenile justice involved youth are estimated between 3%-50% (Wolpaw & Ford, 2004) making it comparable to the PTSD rates (12%-20%) of soldiers returning from deployment in Iraq (Roehr, 2007). While many youth who experience trauma are able to work through subsequent challenges, some display traumatic stress reactions.

The impact of a potentially traumatic event is determined, not only by the objective nature of the event, but also by the child’s subjective response to the event; something that is traumatic for one child may not be for another. The degree to which a child is impacted by trauma is influenced by his or her temperament; the way the child interprets what has happened; his or her basic coping skills; the level of traumatic exposure; home and community environments; and the degree to which a child has access to strong and healthy support systems.

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder defined in the DSM-IV-TR, and several conditions or criteria must be met for an individual to receive the diagnosis. These criteria include: having been exposed to a threatening event, experiencing an overwhelming emotional reaction, and developing symptoms causing severe distress and interference with daily life.

Further, individuals also must experience a sufficient number of the following three symptoms for more than one month: avoidance (i.e., avoiding reminders of the trauma); hyperarousal (i.e., being emotionally or behaviorally agitated); and re-experiencing (e.g., nightmares or intrusive memories). Since the PTSD diagnosis was developed initially to describe an adult condition, the definition is not a perfect fit for what professionals often see with children and youth who have experienced trauma. It is also important to understand that not all youth who are impacted severely by traumatic stress develop PTSD. Some youth may experience partial symptoms of PTSD, other forms of anxiety or depression, or other significant impairments in their ability to meet the demands of daily life (e.g., emotional numbness or apathy).

Trauma impacts a child’s development and health throughout his or her life.

Exposure to child abuse and neglect can restrict brain growth especially in the areas of the brain that control learning and self regulation (DeBellis, 1999). Traumatic experiences have the potential to impact children in all areas of social, cognitive, and emotional development throughout their lives. Trauma that occurs early in life, such as infancy or toddlerhood, strikes during a critical developmental period. The most significant amount of brain growth occurs between birth and two years of age. Exposure to child abuse and neglect can restrict brain growth especially in the areas of the brain that control learning and self regulation (DeBellis, 1999).

Exposure to domestic violence  has also been linked to lower IQ scores for children (Koenen, Moffitt, Avshalom, Taylor, & Purcell, 2003). In addition to critical periods of brain development, it is during early childhood that children develop the foundations for their future relationships. When young children are cared for by parents who protect them, interact with them, and nurture them, they can learn to trust others, develop empathy, and have a greater capacity for identification with social norms (Putnam, 2006).

Loss of a caregiver or being parented by a significantly impaired caregiver can disrupt children’s abilities to manage their emotions, behaviors, and relationships. Youth who experience traumatic events may have mental and physical health challenges, problems developing and maintaining healthy relationships, difficulties learning, behavioral problems, and substance abuse issues (Ford et al., 2007; Saunders et al., 2005). In other words, what occurs in the lives of infants and young children matters a great deal and can set the stage for a child’s entire life trajectory. The experience of either acute trauma (a single traumatic event limited in time), or chronic trauma (multiple traumatic events) can derail a child’s development if proper supports or treatment are not accessed (Garbarino, 2000).

It is not likely just one traumatic event will lead a youth to become violent or antisocial.

Rather it is both a series and pattern of traumatic events – occurring with no protection, no support, and no opportunities for healing – that places youth at the highest risk (Garbarino, 2000). It is this pattern of chronic trauma that affects many youth who come before the juvenile court system.

Research also suggests that the impact of trauma can persist into adulthood and can increase risk of serious diseases, health problems, and early mortality (Felitti et al., 1998). Given that child traumatic stress can impact brain development and have such a profound influence throughout a person’s lifespan, it is essential for courts and communities to work together to prevent traumatic events where possible (such as child abuse and neglect) and to provide early interventions to treat traumatic stress before a youth becomes entrenched in a pattern of maladaptive and problematic behavior.

Complex trauma is associated with risk of delinquency.

By recognizing and addressing the role of trauma in the lives of youth, the court and other systems can become more effective in meeting the needs of the justice-involved youth and the needs of the community. The effect of trauma is cumulative: the greater the number of traumatic events that a child experiences, the greater the risks to a child’s development and his or her emotional and physical health.

Youth who experience complex trauma have been exposed to a series of traumatic events that include interpersonal abuse and violence, often perpetrated by those who are meant to protect them. This level of traumatic exposure has extremely high potential to derail a child’s development on a number of levels. Youth who are victimized by abuse, and are exposed to other forms of violence, often lose their trust in the adults who are either responsible for perpetrating the abuse or who fail to protect them.

Victimization, particularly victimization that goes unaddressed, is a violation of our social contract with youth and can create a deep disregard both for adults in general and the rules that adults have set (Cook, Blaustein, Spinazzola, & van der Kolk, 2003; Cook et al., 2005). Distrust and disregard for adults, rules, and laws place youth at a much greater risk for delinquency and other inappropriate behaviors.

Danny, a runaway who was interviewed in a residential treatment program, expressed anger and frustration with the fact that the juvenile court’s first response was to quickly issue punitive consequences for his delinquent behavior, while being very slow to act and protect him from the physical abuse that he was suffering at the hands of his parent. He asserted that courts need to ask the questions, “Why is this kid running away? Why is he acting out like this?” It does not go unnoticed by youth when their safety and well-being is not addressed but their delinquent behavior is. These kinds of paradoxes and frustrations can increase the likelihood that youth will respond defiantly and with hostility to court and other professionals who are in positions of authority.

System professionals would benefit from recognizing that imposing only negative or punitive consequences will likely do little to change the youth’s patterns of aggression, rule breaking, and risky behaviors because such a response does not address the impact of traumatic stress on the child. By recognizing and addressing the role of trauma in the lives of youth, the court and other systems can become more effective in meeting the needs of the justice-involved youth and the needs of the community.

Traumatic exposure, delinquency, and school failure are related.

When youth live in unpredictable and dangerous environments they often, in order to survive, operate in a state of hypervigilance. Academic failure, poor school attendance, and dropping out of school are factors that increase the risk of delinquency. Success in school requires confidence, the ability to focus and concentrate, the discipline to complete assignments, the ability to regulate emotions and behaviors, and the skills to understand and negotiate social relationships.

When youth live in unpredictable and dangerous environments they often, in order to survive, operate in a state of hypervigilance. Clinical dictionaries typically describe hypervigilance as abnormally increased physiological arousal and responsiveness to stimuli, and scanning of the environment for threats. Individuals who experience hypervigilance often have difficulty sleeping and managing their emotions, and because they often see people or situations as a threat, they are more likely to react in aggressive or defensive ways.

The mindset and skills involved in hypervigilance fundamentally conflict with the skills and focus needed to succeed in school academically, socially, and behaviorally. Unfortunately, school performance and attendance issues (whether trauma related or not), can be exacerbated by involvement in the juvenile justice or child protections systems.

Studies in New York City and the State of Kentucky found that after being released from juvenile justice facilities, between 66%-95% of youth either did not return to school or dropped out (Brock & Keegan, 2007). Youth may experience absences while waiting for records to transfer, a delay in specialized services, inadequate educational planning, and poor service coordination between school systems, child welfare agencies, and juvenile justice systems. Also, it may be easier for youth to act out or give up than to continue failing in school. It is essential that the juvenile justice system work with other community partners to ensure that youth have the supports they need to attend and succeed in school. Without these supports and resources, uneducated youth face further adversities such as poverty, unemployment, and ongoing justice system involvement.

Trauma assessments can reduce misdiagnosis, promote positive outcomes, and maximize resources.

When there is a lack of thorough assessment, youth are provided treatment based on these behavioral diagnoses, without addressing the traumatic experiences that are contributing to the symptoms. “Sixty-percent of youth involved in the juvenile justice system suffer from diagnosable mental health disorders” (Wood, Foy, Layne, Pynoos, & James, 2002, p. 129). Many of these youth have extensive histories of mental health treatment that may also include the use of psychotropic medication. Often, youth who are exposed to chronic or complex trauma receive a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder, or other mental health disorders.

These diagnoses are predominantly based on observable behaviors and symptoms. When there is a lack of thorough assessment, youth are provided treatment based on these behavioral diagnoses, without addressing the traumatic experiences that are contributing to the symptoms. In order to avoid this disconnect, trauma screenings and standardized assessments should be implemented at intake and at other points of contact.

There are a number of assessments that assist in both identifying and tracking trauma histories, such as the Traumatic Events Screening Inventory (Daviss et al., 2000; Ford et al., 2000) and the Child Welfare Trauma Screening Tool (Igelman et al., 2007). There are also validated, standardized assessment tools that assist with identifying both mental health and behavioral symptoms and disorders related to traumatic experiences such as the UCLA Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Reaction Index (Steinberg, Brymer, Decker, & Pynoos, 2004) and the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children (Briere, 1996). With such a strong body of knowledge and tools available, and so much at stake for youth and society, it makes good sense and is also ethically imperative to use evidence-based assessment tools to make accurate diagnoses that can inform appropriate responses and treatment for trauma-exposed youth.

There are mental health treatments that are effective in helping youth who are experiencing child traumatic stress.

It is also imperative that referrals for treatment be made to service providers that use trauma-focused EBPs, so that youth may receive both the best care and the most positive outcomes. A number of evidence-based practices (EBPs) are available to courts and communities for treating youth who are impacted by trauma. EBPs are practices that have been evaluated through rigorous scientific studies and have been found to be effective.

It is a service provider’s ethical responsibility to provide the highest standard of care and to use evidence-based practices whenever possible. It is also imperative that referrals for treatment be made to service providers that use trauma-focused EBPs, so that youth may receive both the best care and the most positive outcomes. The Centers for Disease Control indicates that the most highly effective treatments for traumatic stress are cognitive behavioral treatment models (Centers for Disease Control, 2008).

Typically, trauma-focused, evidence-based treatments include the following components: psychoeducation, caregiver involvement and support, emotional regulation skills, anxiety management, cognitive processing, construction of a trauma narrative, and personal empowerment training. Judges can and should discuss the availability of EBPs with their treatment providers and advocate for the development of trauma-specific programming. (Please visit for a list of evidence-based trauma treatments and respective evidence, treatment components, and target populations.)

Evidence-Based Treatments for Working with Youth Who Have Experienced Trauma

There are a variety of treatments that research suggests are effective in working with youth who have experienced trauma. A comprehensive list of such treatments and supporting documentation is available at Some of the more common evidence-based treatments, however, include (in no particular order):

Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS ): Tested with youth who have experienced violence and complex trauma. CBITS is provided in a group format in schools, residential programs, and other similar environments.

Trauma Affect Regulation: Guide for Education and Therapy (TARGET -A): TARGET-A shows evidence of effectiveness with youth who are in correctional facilities, residential settings, and community-based programs. This model can be practiced in group, individual, and family formats, which helps both youth and families to better understand trauma and stress, and to develop skills that help them to think through, and regulate, their emotional, cognitive, and behavioral responses to stress triggers.

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF -CBT): Youth (and their parents, possibly) are taught to process the trauma; manage distressful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; and enhance both personal safety and family communication. It can be provided over a relatively short period of time in virtually any setting.

Sanctuary Model: The Sanctuary Model promotes system change based on the creation and maintenance of a nonviolent, democratic, productive community to help individuals heal from trauma. The model provides a common language for staff, clients, and other stakeholders, and can be adapted to several settings and populations.

There is a compelling need for effective family involvement.

Families may need education about traumatic stress and treatments that work so they can be more supportive of their children, and for some families. This education will help them address their own traumatic experiences. Youth who do not have helpful and consistent family support are at higher risk of violence and prolonged involvement in the court system (Garbarino, 2000).

If juvenile courts are to enhance their success in rehabilitating juveniles who commit delinquent acts, they need to maximize opportunities to engage and partner with their caregivers. This means working to develop meaningful involvement of biological parents, extended family members, kinship caregivers, adoptive families, foster parents, and others.

Families may need education about traumatic stress and treatments that work so they can be more supportive of their children, and for some families, this education will help them address their own traumatic experiences. Kinship caregivers, foster parents, and adoptive families often regret not being involved sooner in a child’s life so they could have prevented earlier traumatic events. Often out-of-home caregivers need more information about what specific traumatic events or adversities a child may have experienced prior to becoming part of their family so they can make sense out of the child’s behaviors and find helpful ways to respond.

There can be obstacles and challenges to achieving successful family involvement.

Sometimes families avoid interactions with the court system because of feelings of shame and fears of being criticized. Therefore, courts might wish to engage families in ways that can help them feel more valued, respected, and invited to participate in the court processes and their child’s rehabilitation. Practical and economic issues can also play a significant role in limiting family involvement, including: too much distance from the child’s home to the juvenile correction center, lack of reliable transportation, language and cultural barriers, and feelings of being overwhelmed and intimidated about interacting with a large public institution.

When courts collaborate with community organizations and families, they may be able to find some practical ways to locate the resources that enable increased family participation. The best strategy to improve family involvement and partnerships is for the courts to take the time to ask them for guidance and solutions.

Youth are resilient.

Research on resiliency suggests that youth are more likely to overcome adversities when they have caring adults in their lives. Resiliency is the capacity for human beings to thrive in the face of adversity – such as traumatic experiences. Research suggests that the degree to which one is resilient is influenced by a complex interaction of risk and protective factors that exist across various domains, such as individual, family, community and school. Accordingly, most practitioners approach enhancing resiliency by seeking both to reduce risk (e.g., exposure to violence) and increase protection (e.g., educational engagement) in the lives of the youth and families with whom they work.

Through positive relationships with adults, youth experience a safe and supportive connection that fosters self-efficacy, increases coping skills, and enhances natural talents. Parents and other important familial adults can help increase their children’s ability to heal from trauma and promote prosocial behaviors by spending time at home together, talking, sharing meals, and “setting clear boundaries for behavior and reasonable disciplinary actions” (National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center, 2007).

Further, schools, courts, and communities can enhance resiliency by providing opportunities for youth to make meaningful decisions about their lives and environment, as well as investing in recreational programs, arts, mentorship, and vocational programs. The Search Institute, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has developed a variety of tools to identify and promote developmental assets (

Next steps:

The juvenile justice system needs to be trauma-informed at all levels.

To help sustain and ensure effectiveness of a trauma-informed juvenile justice system, data needs to be collected, evaluated, and used to determine the quality, fidelity, and effectiveness of the system changes. Trauma-informed systems of care understand the impact of traumatic stress both on youth and families, and provide services and supports that prevent, address, and ameliorate the impact of trauma.

It is essential that juvenile courts work to provide environments that are safe and services that do not increase the level of trauma that youth and families experience. For example, a trauma-informed juvenile justice system understands that youth who are chronically exposed to trauma are often hypervigilant and can be easily triggered into a defensive or aggressive response toward adults and peers. Such a juvenile justice system makes system-level changes to improve a youth’s feelings of safety, reduce exposure to traumatic reminders, and help equip youth with supports and tools to cope with traumatic stress reactions.

The provision of or referral to evidence-based trauma-informed treatment is essential within a trauma-informed system, as youth are less likely to benefit from rehabilitation services if the system they are involved in does not respond to their issues of safety and victimization. Trauma-informed systems require successful and respectful partnerships between youth, families, professionals, and other  stakeholders.

To help sustain and ensure effectiveness of a trauma-informed juvenile justice system, data needs to be collected, evaluated, and used to determine the quality, fidelity, and effectiveness of the system changes. For example, there needs to be supervision and evaluation to ensure that trauma-informed interventions are being practiced the way they were designed in the particular evidence-based treatment model.

Clinical outcome measures need to be used at least pre- and post-treatment to determine if a decrease in symptoms and/or increase in healthy coping have occurred during and after completion of the therapy model. Often juvenile detention centers have looked at rates of aggression, self-injury, and restraint and seclusion as data to help determine if the trauma-informed treatments are effective or in need of modification.

All stakeholders need to be regularly informed on the status and quality of the outcomes of the system change efforts (Fixsen, Blase, Naoom, & Wallace, 2007). There are many resources that describe trauma-informed care in various service systems, such as juvenile justice, that can help guide interested systems through a transformation process.


Research has repeatedly shown that the majority of youth in the juvenile justice system have experienced traumatic events; the juvenile court is disadvantaged if this fact is overlooked. Juvenile courts can benefit from understanding trauma, its impact on youth, and its relationship to delinquency. Research has repeatedly shown that the ajority of youth in the juvenile justice system have experienced traumatic events; the juvenile court is disadvantaged if this fact is overlooked.

By becoming trauma-informed, juvenile justice personnel aid the juvenile court in its mission of protecting and rehabilitating traumatized youth while holding them responsible for their actions. Rehabilitation resources also can be maximized by utilizing effective assessment and treatment strategies that reduce or ameliorate the impact of childhood trauma. Ultimately, such efforts will help promote improved outcomes for youth, families, and communities most in need of our help.

Parting thoughts

I hope all of the professionals in the juvenile justice system will heed the words of these authors. I think many of our youth can be helped so much with the right guidance and support if they are trauma-impacted. This new information and knowledge could revolutionize our juvenile justice system.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network










For more information about trauma, delinquency, or other issues of interest to juvenile and family

courts, please contact the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) at info@nctsn.

org or the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) at (775) 784-6012;

e-mail Other resources are available online at:


About the Authors

Kristine Buffington, MS W, is the Vice President of Mental Health Services for A Renewed

Mind, an outreach and community-based agency in Toledo, Ohio, that serves youth with

mental health and substance abuse problems. Much of her 24-year career as a clinical social

worker has been spent serving youth, adults, and families who have experienced traumatic

stress. []

Carly B. Dierkhising, MA, is the Program Coordinator for the Service Systems Program at

the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress (NCCTS), which seeks to improve access and

raise the standard of care for traumatized children and families. Her primary focus is on the

assessment and treatment of trauma-exposed youth involved in the juvenile justice system.


Shawn C. Marsh, Ph.D., is the Director of the Juvenile and Family Law Department of the

National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. His research and teaching interests

include adolescent development, delinquency, and resiliency. []

Note: The authors would like to thank the judicial officers, clinical experts, staff, and system

consumers who reviewed this bulletin for their time and thoughtful input that made this a

better product.



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Suggested citation: Buffington, K., Dierkhising, C. B., & Marsh, S. C. (2010). Ten things every

juvenile court judge should know about trauma and delinquency. Reno, NV: National Council of

Juvenile and Family Court Judges.


© 2010, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. All rights reserved.

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NCJFCJ is registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as a trademark of the National Council of Juvenile and Family

Court Judges.

This project was supported by Grant No. 2007-JL-FX-0007 awarded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention,

Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view or opinions in this document or program are those of the

authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice or the National Council of

Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

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