Approaching the Bench in Trauma-Informed Courts – There’s a Difference

70% of adults in the United States have experienced trauma at least once in their lives. These traumatic events continue to affect how the individuals function in their daily life long after the event is over. Trauma, if left unaddressed, can often lead to mental health disorders, substance abuse, increased vulnerability to new trauma, suicide, and dysfunctional relationships.

Trauma Informed CourtBecause trauma is so prevalent, it’s important for more than just behavioral health agencies to adhere to trauma informed practices – especially when dealing with populations that are more likely to have experienced traumatic events. For example, trauma-informed practices are vital in the court system, though few are trained appropriately.

Why Trauma-Informed Courts?

Being trauma-informed in a courtroom doesn’t mean that the judge is responsible for providing trauma care to one of the persons standing before him/her. It also doesn’t mean that the individual is above punishment because of experiencing a past trauma.

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.

What does a trauma-informed-court actually look like?

For those who are still working through a past trauma in their life, they perceive the courtroom through that lens. They may react more strongly to something that is said or happens in the courtroom which would impede their ability to answer questions and be present. Creating a trauma-informed court can help to mitigate these issues.

When looking to create a trauma-informed court, there are three areas you need to pay attention to.

  1. Courtroom Communication
  2. Courtroom Procedures
  3. Courtroom Environment

SAMHSA provided examples of phrases that might be used or procedures that might occur, how a trauma survivor might perceive it, and a trauma-informed solution.

Courtroom Communication

Judge’s Comment

Perception of Trauma Survivor

Trauma-Informed Approach

Your drug screen is dirty

I’m dirty. There is something wrong with me.

Your drug screen shows the presence of drugs.

I’m sending you for a mental health evaluation.

I must be crazy. There is something wrong with me that can’t be fixed.

I’d like to refer you to a doctor who can help us better understand how to support you.

Did you take your pills today?

I’m a failure. I’m a bad person. No one cares how the drugs make me feel.

Are the medications your doctor prescribed working well for you?

 

Courtroom Procedures

Courtroom Experience

Reaction of Trauma Survivor

Trauma-Informed Approach

A judge conducts a sidebar conversation with attorneys.

Suspicion; betrayal; shame; fear.

Tell the participant what is happening and why. For example, “We have to discuss some issues related to your case. We just need a minute to do it on the side.”

 

A court officer handcuffs a participant without warning to remand him or her to jail because they have not met the requirements of the agreement with the court

 

Anxiety about being restrained; fear about what is going to happen

 

Tell the court officer and the individual you intend to remand them. Explain why. Explain what is going to happen and when.(The court officer will walk behind you; you will be handcuffed, etc.).

 

Individuals who are frightened and agitated are required to wait before appearing before the judge.

 

Increased agitation; anxiety; acting out

Clearly provide scheduling information in the morning so participants know what will be expected of them and when. To the greatest extent possible, prioritize who appears before you and when; those who are especially anxious may have the most trouble waiting and be more likely to act out.

 

Courtroom Environment

Physical Environment

Reaction of Trauma Survivor

Trauma-Informed Approach

The judge sits behind a desk (or “bench”), and participants sit at a table some distance from the bench.

 

Feeling separate; isolated; unworthy; afraid.

 

In some treatment courts, the judge comes out from behind the bench and sits at a table in front.

 

Multiple signs instruct participants about what they are not allowed to do.

 

Feeling intimidated; lack of respect; untrustworthy; treated like a child.

 

Eliminate all but the most necessary of signs; word those that remain to indicate respect for everyone who reads them.

 

A judge asks a participant to explain her behavior or the impact of abuse without acknowledging the impact of others in the courtroom

 

Intimidation or fear of abusers who may be in the courtroom; reluctance to share information in front of family members or others who do not believe them.

 

Save questions about sensitive issues for when the courtroom is empty or allow the participant to approach the bench. If ongoing abuse or intimidation is suspected, engage those people in activities outside the courtroom while the participant shares her story.

 

Implementing a trauma-informed approach in a courtroom doesn’t have to be a big, dramatic gesture. It just needs to be a consideration of what would make the person with trauma in their past more comfortable. Below, a trauma survivor describes the act a trauma-informed judge made that changed their experience in the courtroom.

So here I was, in front of this judge, asking for a restraining order against a family member who was also going to show up in that courtroom, and I was actively hearing voices. I was having a very hard time expressing what I needed to say to get the job done. The restraining order was against my grandfather, and the judge was an older man who looked like my grandfather. I couldn’t speak. I had to try to articulate something that I was not even able to speak about very well in the first place. And I needed to do it quickly and succinctly.

What the judge did was pretty incredible. He asked me to come forward. It created a sense of privacy. I didn’t have to shout across a really busy courtroom. He really helped me in that simple act of asking me to come closer. I was able to do what I needed to do, and he was able to hear what he needed to hear. I had been in the mental health system for 14 years, and this judge changed my life in that one simple act.   — Trauma Survivor

Taking the time to implement these changes and take steps towards creating a trauma-informed court can make court time more efficient and ensure that those going through the court system, are not re-traumatized by an interaction that could have been avoided.

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