Using a Trauma Lens

Lynn Tepper


Lynn Tepper, Circuit Judge, 6th Judicial Circuit, Pasco County, Florida

Summary: Judge Tepper makes the case for understanding and applying what science has documented to intervene effectively in cases involving trauma and adverse childhood experiences.



Crouched in the midst of ricocheting bullets and exploding bombs; the wounded soldier awaits the battle's end.

Medics arrive.
Flight to Trauma Center.
Bullets and shrapnel removed, wounds cleansed.
Leg cast.
Specialists check for head trauma. 
Physical therapy follows.
Checkups assure injuries fully healed and needed support in place.
Another Trauma Center success!

Now, imagine: the soldier is a child and the battlefield is his home. 

The “bullets”: cruel names yelled at the child's mother.
The “exploding bombs”: any and everything breakable including family photos. 

The child awaits the end of today's battle in the darkness of his closet, trying to block out:

His baby sister’s cries.

Today like other days, the bruising on his mother's arms gets covered by long sleeves; her black eye, by make-up. The trauma of the child seeing his mom pushed around by his drunken dad goes untreated. Again.

Instead of medics, police arrive. 
Dad handcuffed and taken away by police. 
Mom helps bond Dad out of jail.
He returns home (in violation of a "No Contact" provision).

The child’s joy of Dad’s return is short-lived. Drunk again, Dad drags Mom by her hair. The child jumps on his dad’s back, pounding his small fists, screaming “Leave my mommy alone!” Dad throws him into a wall and punches Mom in the face. 

Police arrive. Again.
Found hiding in the closet, the child is crouched and weeping.
His baby sister is in his arms.
Protective Services arrive.
Both children are removed from both parents.
The child is dragged from his weeping mom.
The child weeps as his baby sister is dropped off without him.

Soon the child is breaking toys, doesn’t follow rules at his foster home.

School complains of fighting.
He curses and yells at the foster parents.

After his visits with his mom, his anger escalates.

He weeps.
He doesn’t listen.
He hasn’t seen his baby sister since the night they were taken away.

Child welfare sets a hearing to stop the mother’s visits with the child because it is “too upsetting to him and his foster family.”

A teen is in court for a detention hearing on VOP.

Chronic runner;
History of drugs;
10 battery charges;
Lives with grandparents;
ADHD, ODD diagnosis and two involuntary mental health placements;
Grades and school attendance dismal;
Detention petition: Grandparents say “We can’t handle her anymore. She’s too big for me to hit anymore. She’s just like her mother!”

A few questions of the disheveled teen reveals:

A seven year old girl taken from substance-abusing Mom by the courts;
Dad in and out of prison; 
She has been on the streets off and on for six months.

Look at her through a trauma lens. Gently speak to the teen (don’t be judgmental or lecture).

“Sometimes bad things happen to children when they’re younger. 
Those are crimes.
That shouldn’t have happened. 
It‘s not your fault. 
There is nothing you could have done to stop it.
You deserve to be happy.
You can heal from bad things in the past. 
I can get you someone to talk to who could help. 
Do you think that might help?”

Tears stream down her cheeks. She nods.

“How old were you when you started using drugs?”

“About ten. Right after I came back from visiting my mom and her boyfriend one summer.”

“Did something bad happen when you were there?” Another nod.

           “He touched me.”

“Did you tell anyone?”

           “My mom, my grandma. They told me ‘forget it’.”


I have seen these children in court for 26 years.

Through a trauma-informed lens I see:

Young children whose parental and sibling attachments, however unhealthy, were broken by the courts;
Chronic child neglect and abuse;
Children grieving the loss of their parents but unable to express it;
An unacknowledged, unhealed victim of child sex abuse;
Children where the question has become “What’s wrong with you?” instead of what it should have been: “What happened to you?”

I see their parents. They were children once, too.

Anyone who touches the life of a child must be trauma-informed. Intensive evidence-based education is critical to initial and ongoing training, for courts, child welfare and juvenile delinquency systems and schools. How we speak to children is as important as what we say. Encouragement and kindness are essential. Trained trauma-informed assessors, therapists and mental health providers are critical to assure screening and therapy reveals and heals past trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Protocols for all who come in contact with a child or their parent must exist to recognize and avoid triggering trauma stress reactions.

We have the ability to change generations by understanding and applying what science has taught us about trauma and the impact of adverse childhood experiences.

Author biography:

Judge Lynn Tepper has been a Circuit Judge in Florida’s 6th Judicial Circuit since 1989, after one term on the Pasco County Bench. In 1977 she received her J.D. from Stetson after receiving her B.A. from Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Tepper has clerked in Bankruptcy Court, served as an Assistant Public Defender and had a private practice.

Presently, Judge Tepper sits in Dade City, Pasco County where she hears all the Dependencies, Children and Families in Need of Services, cross-over cases for the families before her, and all of the Domestic Violence Injunction cases in East Pasco County. Her court in Dade City is one of six sites in the US implementing “Project ONE” [One Judge, No Wrong Door, Equal Access to Justice], a National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges [NCJFCJ] program. Her court is one of Florida's Baby/Early Childhood Court (ECC) initiatives in conjunction with FSU, USF-SP & the Office of Court Improvement.


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