A 2009 study found that nearly 61 percent of children and youth under 18 had experienced at least one direct or indirect (i.e., witnessed) form of victimization in the previous year. Exposure to violence is related to emotional and physical health problems, as well as a heightened risk for juvenile delinquency.
Despite the growing attention to the needs of children exposed to violence, progress toward ameliorating adverse childhood experiences is slow, particularly in the juvenile and family court systems. Courts often lack a complete understanding of the effects of trauma on the populations before them and may not have the capacity to modify environments, policies, and practices to keep from compounding the trauma experienced.
All judges should appropriately engage families, professionals, organizations, and communities to support effectively child safety, permanency, well-being, victim safety, offender accountability, healthy family functioning, and community protection.
Judges should appropriately engage the court system to first do no harm, recognizing that all persons appearing before the court do so with experience and concepts of self, family, community, culture, and history.
The NCJFCJ’s work with courts is informed by a focus on trauma using a universal precautions approach that assumes children and families involved in the court system have experienced some form of trauma that may be mitigated through court-based interventions. The NCJFCJ has developed trauma assessment tools that use a multi-method approach to evaluate court practices, policies, environments, and stakeholder attitudes in order to advance the emerging field of trauma-informed justice.
Trauma assessment tools currently provide observationally and survey analysis of the current environment, and practices and enhancements are always being made to provide a robust qualitative assessment of how institutional processes may affect the children and families served. Trauma assessments are using an institutional ethnography approach to social investigation.
To date, the NCJFCJ has conducted more than 35 court trauma assessments in a diverse selection of juvenile and family, tribal, and state courts from around the country, representing both urban and rural locales. Each site received a report detailing concrete and tailored recommendations as to how they can be more trauma-responsive.
Court trauma assessments are designed to promote research in the area of juvenile and family courts’ responses to children, youth, and families who are exposed to violence and could be experiencing trauma. Courts will make practice and policy changes based on recommendations stemming from the assessments and will track changes in outcomes for children and families over time. Of all the professionals working with vulnerable populations, juvenile and family court judges are uniquely situated to identify traumatized persons and ensure an appropriate response that will meet their needs.
The NCJFCJ works to evaluate specific court practices or programs aimed at reducing the traumatic nature of the court process on youth and families and identifying how these strategies may improve well-being in the families served.
Judges and system stakeholders should have a shared understanding of trauma and how it affects the behavior of the youth and families involved in the system. They should also have the capacity to respond effectively to victims of trauma by creating a healing environment that promotes safety, agency, and meaningful social connections. The NCJFCJ supports making resources available for staff experiencing secondary traumatic stress. The NCJFCJ recommends funding for the development of policy and practices to enhance courts’ capacity to respond to victims and others who have experienced trauma in order to improve outcomes for children and families.