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Building Trauma-Informed Dependency Courts by Using the Web-Based Tool: “Trauma Informed Care: Perspectives and Resources”

Eileen EliasKathryne O'GradySherry PetersEileen Elias, MEd (left)
Kathryne O’Grady, JD, Child Welfare Policy Director, National Technical Assistance Center for Children’s Mental Health (center)
Sherry Peters, MSW, ACSW, Assistant Professor and Senior Policy Associate, Georgetown University (right)

Summary: The authors explain the special needs of children who have been traumatized and share an exceptional teaching tool for understanding and addressing trauma from multiple perspectives.

“The very systems that we have set up to help children and keep them safe can actually re-traumatize them instead.”[i]

Jurists, lawyers, court appointed special advocates (CASA volunteers), and others need to know that children who are involved in the court system are more likely to have experienced ongoing complex trauma. The term complex trauma describes both children’s exposure to multiple traumatic events (e.g., abuse, severe neglect) and the wide-ranging, long-term impact of this exposure. [ii] 

Children who are exposed to trauma may exhibit a variety of reactions including avoidance, numbing, hypervigilance, attention or concentration issues, and impulsive, oppositional, defiant, or aggressive behavior. Because trauma frequently occurs within the context of the child’s relationship with a caregiver, it can interfere with the child’s ability to form a stable attachment.

These types of reactions and attachment issues pose special challenges for dependency courts and those involved with the court system. Not only must the court system avoid re-traumatizing these children; it must also recognize the particular challenges these children face.

Reactions to trauma may not be recognized as stemming from traumatic experiences. Some children may be erroneously diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, or other mental health disorders. More disturbing is that these children may be prescribed psychotropic medication, based on observation, without first assessing or addressing the underlying trauma causing the presenting symptoms.

Over the past two decades, much has been learned about trauma, especially its effect on the brain.[iii] Fortunately, much has also been learned about how trauma-informed policies and practices, including the use of effective trauma-specific mental health treatments, can help children heal and build resilience. The research has helped to change the fundamental question from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”

To help those who serve children in a variety of roles build trauma-informed systems of care, the Georgetown University National Technical Assistance Center for Children’s Mental Health and JBS International have created the free web-based, video-enhanced tool: “Trauma Informed Care: Perspectives and Resources.” This tool includes eight modules, each containing:

  • Short introductory videos on the module’s main topic
  • Longer content videos of interviews with trauma experts, practitioners, state and local government representatives, youth, and families
  • Issue briefs and other documents
  • Comprehensive annotated resources including links that are updated regularly

How can dependency courts use these modules?

Module 1 introduces an understanding of the impact of trauma, covering topics such as effects on the brain; the importance of screening all children entering child-serving systems for trauma and, if indicated, providing further assessment; the prevalence of historic and intergenerational trauma; the necessity of addressing parental and caregiver trauma to prevent passing on the effects of trauma exposure to the next generation; and the importance of considering cultural issues when addressing trauma.

Modules 2–4 address ways to avoid re-traumatization and explain how to build resilience at three levels:

  • System level: Topics include introducing trauma-informed care in the child welfare, juvenile justice, and behavioral health systems; developing trauma-informed policies; and helping foster families become trauma-informed. Publications, toolkits, federal guidance, and reports are available for those working in the dependency court system; for example, Module 2 contains Trauma and Resilience: A New Look at Legal Advocacy for Youth in the Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Systems (Juvenile Law Center, 2014).
  • Service provider level: Of particular benefit to courts are the resources that address secondary trauma. Information about this topic addresses the importance of recognizing the symptoms among jurists, lawyers, and CASA volunteers who are exposed to trauma through the traumatic experiences of those they serve and stresses the need for self-care. Resources in these modules describe ways to foster a trauma-informed culture that promotes sensitivity, in part through listening to children, and improve responses to meet the needs of children exposed to trauma.
  • Clinician level: Topics include specific treatments such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Parent–Child Interaction Therapy, and Cognitive Behavioral Interventions for Trauma in Schools, along with information on training and cultural adaptations.

Modules 5–8 explore a public health approach and emphasize prevention and early intervention, the cost-benefit of trauma-informed care, the youth and family perspective, the new frontier in research and practice, and lessons learned from eight states after one year of capacity-building efforts, including in the court system. 

The tool’s eight modules build on and support the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s concept of a “trauma-informed service system”[iv] and support the recommendations of Joy D. Osofsky, PhD, a Judges’ Page contributor, that emphasize the need for judges, lawyers, GAL and CASA volunteers, and others involved in the dependency court process to understand the impact of trauma on children and youth.[v] Individuals involved in court processes can use the information in the modules to promote healing, avoid re-traumatization, and move the courts toward ensuring children’s safety, well-being and permanency. For more information, please contact any of the authors.

Author biographies:

Kathryne O’Grady, JD, is an assistant professor at Georgetown University, where she is the Child Welfare Policy Director for the National Technical Assistance Center for Children’s Mental Health. Previously, she served on the bench in the largest juvenile court in Michigan, where she developed and presided over the Medical Behavioral Health Court—a specialized docket focusing on permanency for children who were exposed to severe trauma.

Sherry Peters, MSW, ACSW, is an assistant professor and senior policy associate at Georgetown University providing assistance to states in developing effective services and supports for youth with complex mental health challenges and their families.

Eileen Elias, MEd, is an international and national public health expert and professor on disability-based behavioral health care and public and private long-term care for children and adults.


[i] excerpted from Module 1 Introductory Video of “Trauma Informed Care: Perspectives and Resources” or

[ii] Retrieved from

[iii] Van der Kolk, B. (2014), The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. This resource explains what happens when trauma goes unaddressed and the positive outcomes when trauma is addressed.

[iv] Retrieved from

[v] Retrieved from



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