The Trauma-Informed Judge: Asking All the Right Questions

Judge Mary E. Triggiano Judge Mary E. Triggiano, Milwaukee County Circuit Court, Wisconsin

Summary: Judge Triggiano reveals the difference implementation of the “NCTSN Bench Card for the Trauma-Informed Judge” has made in her NCJFCJ Model Court cases.

 “Judge I am trying to do what you want me to, but I get so angry and sad.” That is the statement I have heard over and over from the children that have appeared before me.

What we know to be true is that many court-involved children present with extremely high rates of trauma exposure caused by their adverse life experiences. Research shows that while up to 34 percent of children in the United States have experienced at least one traumatic event, between 75 and 93 percent of youth entering the juvenile justice system annually in this country are estimated to have experienced some degree of trauma. [1]

Back in 2005, early in my judicial career, I met Corey. At age 15, Corey was convicted of homicide and is now serving 25 years in prison. Corey took on the characteristics of the adults who failed him. He was removed from his mother’s care and placed in the child welfare system for the first time at age four. Corey’s mother abused drugs. Corey knew it. She would beat Corey and belittle him time and again. He felt it. Corey’s mother experienced abuse at the hands of her boyfriends. Corey witnessed it. She lied to child protective services. He listened.

As a teen, Corey abused alcohol and other drugs—anything he could get his hands on. He manipulated people to get his way. He was angry. He prostituted himself for money. This is how he met Bill, a 52-year-old man he killed after Bill allegedly tried to force Corey to have sex. There was evidence at Corey’s reverse waiver hearing that this was not the first time an adult male had sexually assaulted Corey. Given Corey’s history, I believed Corey would best be served in the juvenile system. However, after a long, drawn out appeal process, Corey ended up in the adult criminal justice system.

I was not aware of trauma-informed resources or judicial bench cards to guide me during my decision-making process with Corey. But one thing was clear to me: Corey’s adverse childhood experiences had a profound impact on him.

In 2013, I rotated back to Children’s Court and became co-chair of the newly created Milwaukee Model Court Collaborative Team. As part of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) Model Court project, our jurisdiction made a commitment to incorporate trauma-effective practices into our court practices. We participated in a Trauma Audit conducted by NCJFCJ researchers and we delivered a full-day training on trauma to attorneys, judges and court staff which featured the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) Bench Card for the Trauma-Informed Judge. As a result of the training, we are better equipped to identify trauma in children that appear before us.

The NCTSN Bench Cards have helped my judicial colleagues and I ground our decisions in the emerging scientific findings in the traumatic stress field. So, when I met Kaylee a year ago, I immediately knew she had been exposed to toxic stress as a child.

Kaylee, like Corey, was placed in foster care due to physical abuse from her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. In addition, the boyfriend also may have sexually assaulted Kaylee. Kaylee was bullied at school. She began using marijuana at age 13. She felt she had no safe place to go.

After her third battery charge stemming from her placements in various group homes, the state asked that Kaylee be sent to juvenile corrections. Knowing about her history, I immediately asked for a trauma-informed mental health evaluation for Kaylee and asked other questions on the Bench Card to make sure I had all the information I needed to fully understand Kaylee’s trauma exposure. As a result, she is doing well in a residential treatment facility that specializes in trauma-informed care – not juvenile corrections.

The NCTSN Bench Cards are a very useful tool to reframe what we see on the surface to help us understand the deeply held and lasting effects of childhood trauma. With this knowledge, we as judicial officers can ensure that the proper trauma-informed, evidence-based treatments are put in place and promote healing for the children and youth in our courts. We are optimistic that the use of the Bench Cards and our commitment to incorporate trauma-effective practices into court practices are having a profound, positive, and measurable impact on our families. In that vein, we intend to work with the National Council on Juvenile and Family Court Judges and other stakeholders through our Model Court project to measure these results, including improved case outcomes and well-being for our children and families.

[1] Justice Policy Institute HEALING INVISIBLE WOUNDS: Why Investing in Trauma-Informed Care for Children Makes Sense, July 2010.

Author biography:

The Hon. Mary E. Triggiano has been a Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge since August 1, 2004. She was first assigned to the Children's Division from August 2004 to August 2009. She was next assigned to the Domestic Violence Court, handling adult misdemeanor and felony domestic abuse and child abuse cases. She returned to the Children’s Division in August, 2014 and presides over the Family Drug Treatment Court and the Unified Court.

Judge Triggiano has been involved in numerous committees and has given countless presentations addressing childhood trauma, trauma informed care, domestic violence, child well-being, child welfare law, safety and permanence, infant mental health, evidence-based sentencing practices, evidence-based responses to drug and alcohol use, family drug treatment courts, juvenile delinquency.

Judge Triggiano has been a member of the National Council on Juvenile & Family Court Judges for over 10 years and is a Project ONE Co-Leader and co-chair of the newly created Milwaukee Model Court Collaborative Team.


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