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Every day, children and adults who have experienced traumatic events enter courtrooms to seek justice. The room is intimidating, even for those who have not experienced trauma. The people working there are dressed in uniform and robes. The hall echoes with voices. This is the workplace for judges and officers every single day, but for the folks who approach the bench, this is unknown territory, and unknown territory can feel unsafe.
Hands begin to sweat. Thoughts cloud. A low buzz overtakes the person’s ability to hear prompts and questioning, impeding their ability to answer. Anxiety and fear lock up a person’s ability to speak or even to move. Unexpected physical touches, delays in proceedings, and ways conversations are handled exacerbate the individual’s already on-edge nervous system.
Judges and officers are just trying to do their jobs and serve the public. It’s what they do, day in and day out. But when 70% of adults have experienced some kind of trauma at least once in their lives, it’s important for more than just mental health professionals to understand the repercussions of trauma.
Unaddressed trauma can lead to mental health issues, substance abuse, dysfunctional relationships, the perpetuation of additional trauma from generation to generation, suicide, and increased vulnerability to traumatic events.
Judges and officers interact regularly with individuals who are more likely to have experienced trauma in their lives, so it is particularly important for this population to incorporate trauma-informed practices into their operations.
SAMHSA describes a trauma-informed court as one in which judges recognize the people appearing before them have personally experienced acts of violence or other traumatic life events, and are also cognizant of the stress of the courtroom environment impact on trauma survivors.
When judges make small adjustments to the way they handle their courts, it makes proceedings more efficient and avoids potentially re-traumatizing individuals who have already experienced trauma.
Trauma-informed courtroom communication takes a behavioral approach instead of an identity approach to questioning. It changes the essence of a question from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” and changes the statements we make away from “You are bad” to “What you did was wrong.
For instance, when a judge tells someone “I’m sending you for a mental health evaluation,” that person can feel as if there’s something wrong with them that can’t be fixed. “I must be crazy,” they think to themselves. However, a simple reframing of this statement honors a person’s humanity and provides next steps for their care: “I’d like to refer you to a doctor who can help us better understand how to support you."
Often, judges and officers initiate sidebar conversations, delay proceedings, or handcuff a participant without an explanation to the individual in the room. These moments can evoke feelings of suspicion, fear, shame, betrayal, agitation, and even acting out.
Instead, when judges take the time to explain to the participant what is going to happen next and why, it reduces the participant’s anxiety and minimizes those rising emotions.
The physical environment of the courtroom is intimidating in and of itself. Here again there are simple steps that can be taken to “read the room,” so to speak. Instead of staying behind the bench or desk at some distance from the participant, in some treatment cases, judges can close the distance and sit at a table with the participant, relieving some degree of intimidation, isolation, and fear.
If individuals are present in the courtroom who may be responsible for a person’s abuse, wait to ask about sensitive issues until the courtroom is empty or allow the participant to approach the bench so that he or she can confide in you out of range of the suspected abuser’s hearing.
There are simple adjustments that can be taken to transform the local courtroom into a trauma-informed court. Download the NCTSN Bench Card for the Trauma Informed Judge—an official product of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s Justice Consortium in cooperation with the National Council of Juvenile
and Family Court Judges. Written by judges and mental health professionals, this information can help you learn how to better deal with youth who struggle with traumatic stress.
Another resource comes from Judge Carole Clark. Judge Clark’s trauma-informed approach to drug and family court is captured in the documentary, All Rise: For the Good of the Children. You can access Judge Clark’s objectives and process here.
We can do a better job serving the public when we understand where the people we serve are coming from, what kind of help they need, and how we can minimize harm by incorporating simple changes in the way we lead.