Trauma-Informed Juvenile and Family Courts

February 9, 2011

[Note: This entry based on Buffington, K., Dierkhising, C. B., & Marsh, S. C. (Summer 2010). Ten things to know about trauma and delinquencyJuvenile and Family Justice Today, 19(3), 12-13.]

The mission of the juvenile court is complex. The court is tasked with protecting society, safeguarding the youth and families that come to its attention, and holding delinquent youth accountable while supporting their rehabilitation. In order to successfully meet these sometimes contradictory goals, juvenile court judges and system professionals are asked to understand the myriad underlying factors that affect the lives of juveniles and their families. One of the most pervasive of these factors is exposure to trauma. To be most effective in achieving its mission, the juvenile court must both understand the role of traumatic exposure in the lives of children and engage resources and interventions that address child traumatic stress.

It is critical system professionals understand that traumatic experiences have the potential to impact children in all areas of social, cognitive, and emotional development throughout their lives. Trauma that occurs in early childhood strikes during a critical developmental period – one marked, in part, by substantial brain development. Exposure to child abuse and neglect can restrict brain growth, especially in the areas of the brain that control learning and self regulation. Further, exposure to domestic violence has been linked to lower IQ scores for children.

In addition to critical periods of brain development, it is during early childhood that children develop the foundations for their future relationships. When young children are cared for by parents who protect them and nurture them, they can learn to trust others, develop empathy, and have a greater capacity for identification with social norms. Loss of a caregiver or being parented by a significantly impaired caregiver can disrupt children’s abilities to manage their emotions, behaviors, and relationships.

Events that occur in the lives of infants and young children matter a great deal and can set the stage for a child’s entire life trajectory. Youth who experience traumatic events may have mental and physical health challenges, problems developing and maintaining healthy relationships, difficulties learning, behavioral problems, and substance abuse issues. Research also suggests that the impact of chronic trauma can persist into adulthood and can increase risk of serious diseases, health problems, and early mortality.

Given that child traumatic stress can impact brain development and have such a profound influence throughout a person’s lifespan, it is essential for courts and communities to work together to prevent traumatic events where possible (such as child abuse and neglect) and to provide early interventions to treat traumatic stress before a youth becomes entrenched in a pattern of maladaptive and problematic behavior.

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