Victim Series 8 - System-Induced Trauma

May 21, 2015

Written by Victoria Sweet, JD[1]

Professionals who work in the areas of child abuse and neglect, juvenile law and family law regularly encounter individuals suffering the effects of various types of traumatic events. While most professionals are familiar with the trauma associated with sexual abuse or assault, physical abuse or assault, emotional abuse, neglect, bullying and other similar forms, they do not all understand the reality of system-induced trauma. System-induced trauma occurs when the systems that were designed to assist trauma victims end up causing trauma.[2] Because professionals view the system as providing protection and support, they do not always recognize the potential for damage that exists within many common procedures and practices.

In order to best serve the individuals and families who end up in the system, it is important to understand how procedures and practices within the system can potentially re-traumatize them. While all ages can be negatively impacted by the system, this piece will focus mainly on the challenges faced by children and youth in the child welfare and legal systems, although much of the information will also apply to adults.

Common Causes of System-Induced Trauma

In order to help victims avoid being re-victimized by the system, it is important to recognize some of the causes of system-induced trauma. Any actions that disrupt stability, trigger past memories of trauma, or bring added stress or anxiety can create new trauma in an already traumatized child or youth. Some common causes include:

  • Repeated, insensitive, or humiliating interviews
  • Foster placement
  • Sibling separation
  • Ruptures of family, extended family and community relationships
  • Repeated changes of placement
  • Confrontations or visits with abusers
  • Testifying in court
  • Invasive medical procedures[3]

Approaches to Minimizing the Re-traumatization of Victims 

While it is not possible to avoid every stress-inducing practice, it is possible to end some potentially traumatic practices. For practices that cannot be stopped, steps can be taken to mitigate potentially negative impacts. Below are just a few examples.

Maximizing a child’s sense of safety

Anything that can be done to provide stability and help the child feel understood will increase the child’s sense of safety. Minimizing out of home placement is the first thing to consider. Removing a child or youth from family, extended family or community will cause a great deal of insecurity and should only be done when necessary to protect the child from harm. If out of home placement cannot be avoided, it is best to keep siblings together when possible. Separating siblings can create a great deal of stress and fear. In addition, if the child or youth must be placed out of the home, it is important to avoid multiple placement changes. Changing placements too frequently also destroys a sense of stability. Finally, appropriate professional help should be provided to the child to assist him or her in making sense of what happened and learning ways to cope with the after effects.

Coordinating services with various agencies

When agencies and departments are not coordinating efforts, the child can end up being subjected to numerous stressful and traumatic events. For example, being interviewed can trigger traumatic memories of the incidents, and if multiple agencies require an interview, the child can end up having to review the incidents numerous times. One approach to ending this practice is forensic interviewing. A forensic interviewer has been trained to elicit information in sensitive way. The interview is conducted once and then other agencies are able to use the information gained in the interview instead of subjecting the victim to numerous interviews.[4] This is just one example of how agencies can coordinate efforts to mitigate the potential trauma associated with necessary procedures.


Trauma affects different people in different ways and this is particularly noticeable with children and youth. In order to understand a child’s reactions to trauma, all workers must learn how trauma presents itself in children’s lives.[5] In addition, it is important to also learn about cultural interpretations of traumatic events if dealing with kids from different cultural backgrounds. All individuals working with the kids must be trained to understand the impact and symptoms of trauma.

Preparing for court

Giving testimony in court can be an incredibly stressful experience. In order to minimize potential trauma when a child or youth must testify, certain steps can be taken to mitigate the impact. First, a social worker or other advocate can act as the child’s support person while in court. It will give the child someone to lean on if the experience becomes too difficult. Second, the child should be coached about what to expect while in court. The coaching can help the child understand what to expect of the whole experience, what types of questions will be asked, and even what the courtroom looks like. Third, the child can be taught some techniques to deal with anxiety. These techniques will give the child coping skills to deal with high degrees of stress. Fourth, if possible the court should look into allowing the child to testify over closed circuit TV or behind a curtain if being in the courtroom is too traumatic. In some cases, children have been allowed to give a statement in chambers that can be used later.[6] All of these steps will assist with the reduction of stress and trauma. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges developed a guide Ten Things Every Juvenile Court Judge Should Know About Trauma and Delinquency to assist judges with the role of traumatic exposure in the lives of children.

Victims of trauma need to be protected from the additional trauma that can occur within the system. With a little awareness of the causes of system-induced trauma and a willingness to adjust policies and practices to be more trauma-responsive, it is possible to reduce the negative impacts of the system on the individuals and families served.


[1] Victoria Sweet is a Program Attorney at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Points of view expressed are the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Council of juvenile and Family court Judges.

[2] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “Types of Trauma and Violence” website (last updated Sept. 10, 2014),

[3] See Robyn Ingelman, Lisa Conradi & Barbara Ryan, Creating a Trauma-Informed Child Welfare System, 21 Focal Point: Research Policy, & Practice in Children’s Mental Health, 23-26 (2007); Lorie Elizabeth Anderson,  Elizabeth a. Weston, Howard J. Doueck, H.J. & Denise J. Krause, The Child-Centered Social Worker and the Sexually Abused Child: Pathway to Healing, 47 Social Work, 368-78 (2002); Donna M. Pence, Trauma-Informed Forensic Child Maltreatment Investigations, 90 Child Welfare, 49-68 (2011).

[4] Ingelman, supra note 3, at 25.

[5] Anderson, supra note 3, at 369.

[6] Id., at 373; For more information on why children should be involved in court hearings and ways to address concerns about children in court see Elizabeth Whitney Barnes, Andrea Koury & Kristin Kelly, Seen, Heard, and Engaged: Children in Dependency Court Hearings (NCJFCJ 2012).