Research has conclusively demonstrated that court-involved children and adolescents present with extremely high rates of traumatic stress caused by their adverse life experiences. In the court setting, we may perceive these youth as inherently disrespectful, defiant, or antisocial, when, in fact, their disruptive behavior may be better understood in the context of traumatic stress disorders. These two Bench Cards provide judges with useful questions and guidelines to help them make decisions based on the emerging scientific findings in the traumatic stress field. These cards are part of a larger packet of materials about child and adolescent trauma available and downloadable from the NCTSN Trauma-Informed Juvenile Justice System Resource Site* and are best used with reference to those materials.
TRAUMA EXPOSURE: Has this child experienced a traumatic event? These are events that involve actual or threatened exposure of the child to death, severe injury, or sexual abuse, and may include domestic violence, community violence, assault, severe bullying or harassment, natural or man-made disasters, such as fires, floods, and explosions, severe accidents, serious or terminal illness, or sudden homelessness.
MULTIPLE OR PROLONGED EXPOSURES: Has the child been exposed to traumatic events on more than one occasion or for a prolonged period? Repeated or prolonged exposure increases the likelihood that the child will be adversely affected.
OUTCOMES OF PREVIOUS SANCTIONS OR INTERVENTIONS: Has a schedule of increasingly restrictive sanctions or higher levels of care proven ineffective in this case? Traumatized children may be operating in “survival mode,” trying to cope by behaving in a defiant or superficially indifferent manner. As a result, they might respond poorly to traditional sanctions, treatments, and placements.
CAREGIVERS’ ROLES: How are the child’s caregivers or other significant people helping this child feel safe or preventing (either intentionally or unintentionally) this child from feeling safe? Has the caregiver been a consistent presence in the child’s life? Does the caregiver acknowledge and protect the child? Are caregivers themselves operating in survival mode due to their own history of exposure to trauma?
SAFETY ISSUES FOR THE CHILD: Where, when and with whom does this child feel safest? Where, when and with whom does he or she feel unsafe and distrustful? Is the home chaotic or dangerous? Does a caregiver in the household have a restraining order against another person? Is school a safe or unsafe place? Is the child being bullied at school or does the child believe that he or she is being bullied?
TRAUMA TRIGGERS IN CURRENT PLACEMENT: Is the child currently in a home, out-of-home placement, school, or institution where the child is being re-exposed to danger or being “triggered” by reminders of traumatic experiences?
UNUSUAL COURTROOM BEHAVIORS: Is this child behaving in a highly anxious or hypervigilant manner that suggests an inability to effectively participate in court proceedings? (Such behaviors include inappropriate smiling or laughter, extreme passivity, quickness to anger, and non-responsiveness to simple questions.) Is there anything I, as a judge, can do to lower anxiety, increase trust, and enhance participation?
COMPLETENESS OF DATA FOR DECISIONS: Has all the relevant information about this child’s history been made available to the court, including child welfare and out-of-jurisdiction or out-of-state juvenile justice information?
INTER-PROFESSIONAL COOPERATION: Who are the professionals who work with this child and family? Are they communicating with each other and working as a team?
UNUSUAL BEHAVIORS IN THE COMMUNITY: Does this child’s behavior make sense in light of currently available information about the child’s life? Has the child exhibited extreme or paradoxical reactions to previous assistance or sanctions? Could those reactions be the result of trauma?
DEVELOPMENT: Is this child experiencing or suffering from emotional or psychological delays? Does the child need to be assessed developmentally?
PREVIOUS COURT CONTACTS: Has this child been the subject of other court proceedings? (Dependency/ Neglect/Abuse; Divorce/Custody; Juvenile Court; Criminal; Other)
OUT-OF-HOME PLACEMENT HISTORY: How many placements has this child experienced? Have previous placements been disrupted? Were the disruptions caused by reactions related to the child’s trauma history? How did child welfare and other relevant professionals manage these disruptions?
BEHAVIORAL HEALTH HISTORY: Has this child ever received trauma-informed, evidence-based evaluation and treatment? (Well-intentioned psychiatric, psychological, or substance abuse interventions are sometimes ineffective because they overlook the impact of traumatic stress on youth and families.)
PLACEMENT OUTCOMES: How might the various placement options affect this child? Will they help the child feel safe and secure and to successfully recover from traumatic stress or loss?
PLACEMENT RISKS: Is an out-of-home placement or detention truly necessary? Does the benefit outweigh the potential harm of exposing the child to peers who encourage aggression, substance use, and criminal behavior that may possibly lead to further trauma?
PREVENTION: If placement, detention or hospitalization is required, what can be done to ensure that the child’s traumatic stress responses will not be “triggered?” (For example, if placed in isolation or physical restraints, the child may be reminded of previous traumatic experiences.)
DISCLOSURE: Are there reasons for not informing caregivers or staff at the proposed placement about the child’s trauma history? (Will this enhance care or create stigma and re-victimization?)
TRAUMA-INFORMED APPROACHES: How does the programming at the planned placement employ traumainformed approaches to monitoring, rehabilitation and treatment? Are staff knowledgeable about recognizing and managing traumatic stress reactions? Are they trained to help children cope with their traumatic reactions?
POSITIVE RELATIONSHIPS: How does the planned placement enable the child to maintain continuous relationships with supportive adults, siblings or peers?
1 The use of “child” on this bench card refers to any youth who comes under jurisdiction of the juvenile court. *http://learn.nctsn.org/course/view.php?id=74
This project was funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The views, policies, and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of SAMHSA or HHS.
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