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Developing Trauma-Informed Approaches to Children in Courts

Joy OsofskyJoy D. Osofsky, PhD, Clinical and Developmental Psychologist and Barbara Lemann Professor, Departments of Pediatrics and Psychiatry, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center

Summary: The author notes that judges, lawyers, GAL attorneys, CASA volunteers and others involved in the dependency court process need to understand the impact of trauma on children and youth.

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Understanding the impact of trauma on children of all ages and being trauma-informed is very important for judges, lawyers, court appointed special advocates, and all systems that interface with juvenile court. It is important to recognize how the approach to children and the work and decisions made by judges, lawyers and CASA volunteers will be different if they are trauma-informed. When individuals, be they children or adults, experience trauma it can be overwhelming and impact their capacity to cope. Children, especially young children, may feel helpless, fearful and hopeless because of trauma they have experienced, and have less ability to control and regulate their behaviors and emotions. Children and adolescent will have different reactions. Younger children may show their feelings by having frequent temper tantrums, hitting and throwing things. School-age children may have difficulty sitting still and concentrating in school; they may act out in negative ways or withdraw. Adolescents, especially with the influence of their peers, may show risky behaviors, substance use, delinquency and other negative behaviors that come to the attention of the juvenile justice system.

In order to understand and respond appropriately and sensitively, it is important that all child-serving systems, including juvenile courts, become trauma-informed—meaning that judges, lawyers, CASA volunteers and guardians ad litem—understand and respond to the role that traumatic experiences may play in emotional, social, cognitive and physical development of children. Trauma-informed judicial and legal systems will respond in ways that will be most helpful to the children and families (Howard & Tener, 2008) when these systems are making every effort through their policies, procedures and decisions to avoid inflicting secondary trauma that may re-traumatize a child or adolescent. It is recognized that many decisions the court must make to follow legal guidelines and to keep children safe may also cause additional trauma for the child. Some examples include: changing a placement when a child is not safe or in an adequate home; ordering visitation with a parent when the parent has been a perpetrator of domestic violence; ordering joint custody resulting in a young child having to go back and forth between two different homes that provide little stability, consistency and routines; sending an adolescent to a detention center because there are no alternatives.

Recognizing that some decisions made by the court inadvertently may result in secondary traumatization for children and adolescents, trauma-informed decisions can take into account important factors that support positive development, for example, the need for consistency and reliability in children’s lives. Consistency can be created by making some adjustments in how orders are implemented. Some examples of trauma-informed decision making follow:

  • While acknowledging that multiple placements may be needed to protect children and that the transitions may be difficult, with the likelihood of children blaming themselves, additional supports can be put in place to help the children. For example, having the same child welfare worker involved, trying to keep the child in the same school, and spending time talking to the child, no matter how young, about why the change is taking place and what to expect in the new home may be helpful.
  • For visitations, every effort can be made to develop and implement guidelines for supportive, child-friendly, non-traumatizing visitation sites that would include consistency in whoever provides transportation and familiar people to support the children. Additional support for the child and the victimized parent may be needed when a child has visits with a parent who has been a perpetrator of domestic violence or abuse.
  • In responding to negative behaviors by juveniles, it is important when making decisions about consequences to take into account the traumatic experiences that may have led to the negative behaviors in the first place and put in place supportive, trauma-informed services.

In order to make trauma-informed decisions, judges, lawyers, court personnel and CASA volunteers who provide support can benefit from additional training and better methods of communication. It is important to find ways to communicate, gather information and listen to children and adolescents and learn steps to help the children rather than taking action without additional information that can unintentionally re-traumatize the child. Helpful materials have been developed by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ). These resources provide guidelines for obtaining information that needs to be gathered and sensitive ways to respond to child trauma. NCTSN collaborated with NCJFCJ on a special issue of the Juvenile and Family Court Journal in 2008, focusing on ways to develop a more trauma-informed court system.

In summary, in order to more effectively help children cope with and recover from their exposure to trauma, it is imperative that judges, lawyers and CASA volunteers learn to be more sensitive to the traumatic experiences of children and adolescents who present in court and be provided training and resource information about ways that they may obtain trauma informed assessments and services.

Resources:

 "Ten Things Every Juvenile Court Judge Should Know About Trauma and Delinquency" NCJFCJ 2010.

Adams, E.J. (Spring, 2010). Healing Invisible Wounds: Why Investing in Trauma-Informed Care for Children Makes Sense. Georgetown University School of Medicine, Justice Policy Institute.

Howard, Michael L. & Tener, R. (2008). Children Who Have Been Traumatized: One Court’s Response. Juvenile and Family Court Journal, 59, 21-34.

Osofsky, J.D., Putnam, F., & Lederman, C. (Fall, 2008). Vicarious Traumatization and Compassion Fatigue: How to Maintain Emotional Health When Working with Trauma. Juvenile and Family Court Journal, 59, 91-101.

(See the "Web Resources" page for additional resources.)

 
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