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Undoing the Past: Cultural Grief and Trauma in the Courtroom

Tina SaunookeTina Welch Saunooke, MS, Community Coordinator, Cherokee Safe Baby Court Team, Cherokee, NC

Summary: The author describes the Safe Babies Court Team in Cherokee, NC, which offers a multifaceted, therapeutic approach to the complexities Native American clients face in court.


Many Native Americans believe that in order to change the future one must look back seven generations and one must look ahead seven generations. I am an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and have worked with native families for 23 years on the Cherokee Indian Reservation. I have seen how families persevere, overcoming lifelong struggles. Homes littered with substance abuse, violence, sexual abuse and poverty; communities shattered by ethnic cleansing. I’ve had the experience of trying and get help from public institutions where the majority of providers are non-Native and not feeling heard or understood.

A major factor in loss of Native identity and language was children being sent to boarding schools. The earliest boarding schools date back to the 17th century, when mission schools were first opened (Archuleta). The mission schools were subsidized by the US government. One of the founding fathers of the boarding school–era was Richard Pratt whose words, “Kill the Indian, save the man,” summarized his view of “civilizing” the Indian (Archuletta).

 I have witnessed a move from destruction toward healing and embracing the culture and native ways. We are passing the cultural richness and a healthy lifestyle on to the next generation. But I have also seen families that have had multiple resources provided to them to help them change this destructive lifestyle, but yet they can’t change despite all that’s offered. (Duran)

The Safe Babies Court Team in Cherokee, NC, offers a multifaceted, therapeutic approach to the complexities Native clients face in court. Parents are faced with the choice to make significant changes in their own lifestyle in order to provide the safety, love and nurturance that their child age zero to three years old deserves. Otherwise the client is in jeopardy of having the child placed with next of kin, foster care or, sadly, a termination of parental rights. Additionally information is shared with mom and dad about baby brain development and how trauma, such as witnessing domestic violence, negatively affects baby’s development.

The court team is made up of a judge, community coordinator, a nurse and individuals representing the following service providers: mental health, early intervention (Part C) for children with special needs, a nurse, social services, Early Head Start and Head Start, WIC, family visitation, Baby Face parenting, child support enforcement, and emergency housing. This group meets at least monthly to discuss client services.

Cultural grief and trauma is approached in therapy by doing the family assessment or genogram, looking at the life factors of grandparents and great grandparents, and asking such questions as:

  • Did your grandparents or great grandparents go to boarding school?
  • Did your grandparents speak their native language?
  • How were they raised?
  • Was there physical punishment in the home?

In looking at the tough background questions and the trauma parents were exposed to during childhood, one would find multiple layers of abuse and ways to self-medicate the hurt that built up over the years. “My brothers and sisters were there (boarding school), but I couldn’t speak Cherokee to them. There was one matron that spoke Cherokee that would pull me aside and help me when she could. The oak trees beside Unity we called weeping trees because that’s where we used to go and cry because we hated being there. (Cherokee Elders)

A young mom with three children under the age of five told me her children will not get to know their grandmother because granny can’t stop using drugs. “They will not get to be around her because she can’t change.” This feeling of being stuck in something and not being able to change masks the sometimes multitude of life hurt one has gone through. Much of what has happened can be traced back to childhood.

When working with indigenous peoples, the court must consider the culture and heritage in decisions that impact the makeup of the family. Parents need support to understand that what you do to your baby now is going to show in their actions later on. Along with the extended family, therapeutic court and a multifaceted approach can lead to healing and stop the generations of family in the court room.


Archuleta, Margaret L., Child, Brenda J. and Lomawaima, Tsianina. Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Experience. Phoenix Arizona: Heard Museum, 2000.

Duran, Eduardo. (2010) Injury Where Blood Does Not Flow. What’s New, 7th Direction Psychotherapy. Retrieved from on January 23, 2012.

Cherokee Elders. (2005). Cherokee Elders: Our Greatest Generation. Cherokee, NC: Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.


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