Victim Series 9 - Trauma-Informed Courts

June 9, 2015


Written by: Alicia Summers, Ph.D.[1]

The parens patriae doctrine grants power to the state to intervene and protect children and other vulnerable individuals who are not able to protect themselves. In effect, the state serves as a “parent” to the person to ensure their needs are met.  With our ever-increasing understanding of adolescent brain development, neuroscience, psychology, and human development generally, there is a growing recognition that these needs are more complex than the basics of food, shelter, and safety. Children experiencing adversity often require assistance to meet developmental needs and tasks, with a focus on promoting resilience and well-being so that they have the same opportunities for positive outcomes as youth who have not been involved with the court system.

It is within this context that we consider the role juvenile and family courts can play. The daily interaction with vulnerable populations, combined with the inherent powers of the state, make juvenile and family courts ideally suited to play a strategic role in efforts to promote healing and reduce system-induced trauma. To do this, courts must become trauma-responsive by understanding and promoting the conditions of healing for children and families who come before them.

Conditions of Healing

There are many potential ways to work with victims or those who have experienced trauma.  Within the literature on trauma and resilience, three conditions of healing frequently emerge. They include (1) need for safety, (2) promotion of self-determination, and (3) enhancement of positive social connections.

Need for Safety

Safety is a critical component of healing from a traumatic experience. In order to engage in self-soothing, or other coping skills, one has to feel like they are out of immediate danger. Further, they need to consistently feel safe across environments and life domains (e.g., work, home, school, court). This often requires the reduction or elimination of environmental stressors that may trigger memories of a traumatic event and subsequent flight, fight, or freeze responses.

Courts can help support the need for safety by:

  • Examining the courtroom and courthouse for environmental stressors (e.g., excessive temperatures, loud noises, yelling, confusing signage) and reducing or eliminating these as possible.
  • Ensuring victims have a safe place to wait for their hearing separate from their abusers.
  • Creating a child friendly waiting area and courtroom to reduce the anxiety of youth who attend their hearings.
  • Implementing a policy that eliminates presumptive shackling for juvenile offenders appearing in court.

Promotion of Self-determination

A second condition of healing is self-determination or “agency.” As trauma often occurs when an event is forced upon someone (e.g., something bad happens outside of their control), it is important to provide opportunities for victims to reestablish real and meaningful control over as many aspects of their life as possible. This often means giving them choices and a voice in decisions that are made in their case.

Courts can help promote self-determination by:

  • Giving youth and parents an opportunity to have a voice in the system. Research on procedural justice clearly indicates that parties given a voice in the system (i.e., given a chance to be meaningfully heard) are more likely to be satisfied with the process, no matter the outcome.
  • Providing opportunities for youth and parents to be part of the decision-making process. Even small choices (e.g., whether morning or afternoon works better for them to come to court) can substantially impact how people feel about their involvement in the process.
  • Treating all parties with respect. Speaking directly to a parent or youth and addressing them by name (i.e., not mom or dad -- but Ms. or Mr. Smith), can help engage them in the process and increase their perception of identity, “mattering”, and personal agency.

Enhancement of Positive Social Connections

A final consideration for promoting conditions of healing is social connections. Traumatic experiences can leave victims socially isolated. Connections with prosocial others can nurture critical support networks and resources to promote healing, among other protective benefits. The literature on resiliency consistently demonstrates the importance of positive social connections for both adults and youth.

Courts can help enhance positive social connections by:

  • Identifying relatives – even extended relatives or close friends of the family -- on both the paternal and maternal side that may be willing to serve as support persons for the child or family.
  • Having parents and youth self-identify support persons and inviting these persons to be part of the court process whenever possible.
  • Maintaining connections with “prosocial persons of character” within the community whenever possible, especially for youth who have been removed from the home.

These suggestions are only several ways that courts can be more trauma-informed. In reality, there are many opportunities for the courts to apply the conditions of healing to daily practice. Small changes -- like how parties are addressed in the courtroom -- require no cost to the court and can encourage substantial improvements in engagement and case outcomes. Ultimately, the court has an important role in the lives of vulnerable children and families by leveraging its status to promote healing.

Click here to read previous entries in the NCJFCJ's Victim Series.


[1] Program Director for Research and Evaluation in the Juvenile Law Department at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Points of view or opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent the official position or policies of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.