Clinical Associate Professor Sue Green interviewed for article on trauma-informed judges

Published September 24, 2014

Sue Green, co-director of the Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care

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Trauma-informed judges take gentler approach, administer problem-solving justice to stop cycle of ACEs
by Ed Finkel

Three years ago, Judge Lynn Tepper of Florida’s Sixth Judicial Circuit Court in Dade City, FL, learned about the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study The ground-breaking research links childhood abuse and neglect with adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence.

It was like flipping a switch.

“I suddenly had this trauma-informed lens, as we call it. I see it everywhere,” she says, giving an example of someone in front of her on child abuse charges for whom she might recommend counseling and/or anger management. “I have discovered the reality is that when I start asking a few questions, that parent or partner has experienced ACEs,” she says.

The 10 types of childhood trauma measured in the ACE Study are: physical, verbal and sexual abuse, and physical and emotional neglect; a family member who abused alcohol or other drugs, who was depressed or mentally ill, or was in prison; witnessing a mother being abused, and loss of a parent through separation or divorce.

Tepper, a veteran of 37 years on the bench, realized that childhood trauma experienced by the people who ended up in her courtroom was much worse than their paperwork showed. “When you dig down deeper, you wonder how these people get up in the morning,” she says. “I remember thinking at one point, ‘Oh boy, did we blow it all these years on these delinquents.’ ”

Most judges in the United States are unfamiliar with the ACE Study and the research on the neurobiology of toxic stress that has emerged over the last 15 years. But that’s beginning to change in courtrooms across the U.S., due to a number of educational programs aimed at producing trauma-informed judges—and courts. As a result, trauma-informed judges have made three big changes:

  • They’ve modified their courts to be safer and less threatening to defendants with histories of childhood trauma and who are often already traumatized.
  • They recognize that trauma is passed from one generation to another, and take a two- or three-generational approach in child abuse and neglect cases.
  • Because, they say, the traditional approach in criminal justice continues the traumatization of children, youth and families, they’re taking a solution-oriented approach.

The traditional approach doesn’t work anymore, says Chautauqua County (N.Y.) Family Court Judge Judith Claire, because it fails to address the underlying issues. By simply entering an order of protection against domestic violence, for example, the courts don’t teach family members healthy patterns of functioning that many have never learned, she says. Those patterns include how to make good decisions, how to deal constructively with emotions, and what constitutes healthy parenting if they have not received that blessing themselves.

“With problem-solving justice and the trauma-informed delivery of services, you hopefully are addressing those underlying problems,” says Claire, who became trauma-informed through an education program with the Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care at the University of Buffalo. “You’re recognizing that you’re not dealing with an isolated situation, and unless you break that cycle, that next generation is going to have the same issues, or the parents before you are going to keep coming back.”

Claire notes that, over the last 15 years, many family courts have shifted from “the revolving door of justice, which doesn’t help anybody,” to more of a problem-solving approach, and she believes greater awareness about ACEs and trauma will help such an approach continue to take root. “There’s no question that the overwhelming majority of people who come to our court have experienced some sort of trauma,” she says.

She describes the results of such transformations in the courtroom as “fairly remarkable, very successful, and maybe even astonishing.” She says that “in the past, we said to people, ‘Here’s what you need to do, here’s what your problem is.’ And then we’d shake our heads and say, ‘Why did that person not do those things? What’s wrong with them?’ That didn’t work. If you keep doing something that doesn’t work, you need to perhaps figure out what you’re doing wrong.”

Dr. Mimi Graham, director of the Center for Prevention and Early Intervention Policy at Florida State University, where Tepper learned about ACEs and trauma-informed practices, explains the change in approach to being trauma-informed by citing a fable: People see babies floating down the river near their town, and they pull them to safety one at a time. Finally, somebody figures out that they had better go upstream and find out who’s tossing the babies into the river.

“We’ve had quantum leaps in neuroscience, around [emotional] attachments and the science of adversity,” she says. “We know what works in helping to treat and heal the adversity, and yet we’ve got so many adults walking around whose childhood adversities were never treated.”

A kinder, gentler courtroom

In one of the first cases after Tepper had her revelation, a young man who had allegedly sexually assaulted a sibling appeared in her court. When she looked at his rap sheet, it listed about a dozen battery cases. “That’s consistent with a child who’s been a victim of sexual molestation that’s not been revealed,” she says. “I started digging around with him and found out he was a victim of sex abuse in the foster care system in California. And nobody [in the court system] knew about it. He had even gone to treatment for sex abuse. I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, how could we have missed this?’ ”

Now, Tepper is always on the lookout for such histories in people with a violent past. “To me that is a clear indicator, I bet somebody’s been a victim of child sex abuse,” she says. “It’s almost like I have radar to spot the telltale signs.”

She cites the example of a young woman who had her first child at age 14 as a result of being raped, and yet the system was treating her as if she was irresponsible. “Somebody committed a crime against you,” she told the girl. “Our goal is to get you to somebody you are comfortable talking to, so you can get control over the past. I want you to be happy. You’re entitled to be happy.”

After the defendants hear such kinder, gentler words, Tepper says, “there’s a tremendous transformation in 20 minutes. Over and over again, it’s just vast changes. Moms who have lost seven kids in the past [to the child welfare system] can get it right. We’re at the tip of the iceberg, in terms of what we can do to transform the court system.”

Chautauqua Family Court is also very conscious about making sure that defendants feel safe rather than intimidated, which sometimes requires that judges check their hard-boiled attitudes at the courtroom door, Claire says. She recalls a case where a father had punished a child by placing the child inside a washing machine, and he nevertheless insisted that he had been a good father.

“I said to him, in a conversational tone of challenge, ‘Most people would not consider putting this child in this appliance a good example of child care,’ ” Claire says. “You could have heard a pin drop. He stopped protesting. But we certainly weren’t able to reach him in any constructive way. What I did was not trauma-informed. I didn’t insult him. I didn’t say, ‘You’re a lousy parent, or an awful person,’ but he didn’t feel safe.”

In hindsight, Claire says she would not have called attention to him with 100 people in the courtroom but would have asked him to think about other, better ways to discipline a child that society would look upon with greater approval. Instead of asking, “What will you do differently?” Claire might have asked, “What will the child notice that’s different?”

She also might have asked, “How do you think little Johnny feels when he’s put in the washing machine and the lid is clamped down, and he can’t get out?” she says. “What do you think Johnny will learn in the future if you try ‘X?” Claire adds, “That not only makes that person think about it from a point of view other than their own, but it might make them think about other more positive ways to handle it.”

In other cases involving people with mental health diagnoses, Claire has seen some who had previously avoided courts “like a plague” in proceedings involving their children now come in and participate in their cases.

Claire recalls one mother of “a number of children, with different partners” who hadn’t been inside a court building “for years,” and who’s a well-known persona in the community. “She’s often homeless. People take pity on her. Local restaurants feed her,” she says. “She’s the kind the mutters to herself, looks unkempt, what have you. She’s been charged with lots of low-level crimes, and she wouldn’t come to court.”

The woman is incapable of caring for her children, Claire says, but she clearly loves them “within her degree of capabilities.” Some of the woman’s children are now teenagers, and Claire has begun to see some of them in court for their own child neglect cases over the past two or three years.

One day, the woman finally showed up for the first time in many years, muttered to herself and refused to take off her hat as required in the courtroom. She began yelling when the deputies approach her, and they looked to the bench as if waiting to Claire to tell them to eject her from the court. Claire did not.

“I struggled with this one,” she says. “I thought, ‘I have to balance the needs of everybody else in the courtroom against her needs. I didn’t want to send a wrong message.” If Claire had felt as if the woman was a threat, she would have ejected her. But she decided that wearing a ball cap did not constitute a threat and perhaps it gave the woman a sense of psychological security.

Claire’s low-key response apparently made an impression.

“She started coming more and more” to her children’s hearings, Claire says. “She began sitting in her chair more quietly, listening, and then started participating, standing by her children when their case was called and behaving fairly appropriately for a courtroom setting. Although she has never articulated it, the very fact that she was doing these things showed [the trauma-informed approach] was working because we had years of her coming in and stalking about and making a big scene, or just not bothering to show up at all.”

The change in judicial approach undercuts the defiance and hostility judges sometimes face, Claire says. “I’m used to people coming into court and glaring at us,” she says. “Now, people often come in and they smile. They no longer are resistant. We don’t have to waste the first four months trying to get through to them. We see better results.”

It’s not that defendants have likely heard ahead of time how the courts have changed their approach, she says. But when they enter hostile, defiant, frightened and intimidated—and instead of a confrontational or sarcastic approach, the judge starts asking probing, personal questions in a kind manner and pays attention to their answers—their image of the courts as part of the evil system that’s out to get them fades away.

“They realize that maybe this isn’t a hostile environment, or maybe this is a place they can feel safe,” Claire says.

Unless someone intervenes, trauma is passed on from one generation to the next

Miami Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, co-founder of the Miami Child Well Being Court, works with parents and children in abuse, neglect and abandonment cases. “Years ago, we didn’t look for [evidence of trauma],” she says. “Families would keep coming back, and back, and back. It’s been an educational process of everyone involved with these families, about the level of trauma, and the ability to effectively deal with it to achieve our goals.”

Family courts that have adopted a trauma-informed approach have uncovered pervasive, multigenerational ACEs that have been passed down like perverse heirlooms. “Once you’re able to heal that trauma, it unleashes the capacity of parents to parent, and to lead a regular life,” says Graham. “The trauma-informed court is as big to the court [system] as penicillin was to medicine.”

Claire says she sometimes deals with the fourth generation of family members with the same emotional issues. “The people keep coming back and keep coming back, and then their children are coming back,” she says. “It seems as though the traditional area, in a neglect case or abuse case or whatever, to make a finding, set up a plan, and then the case is over and done with, doesn’t really work. It isn’t a useful way to handle things. And it’s not just those people in that case who pay the cost. It’s society that pays the cost, literally, figuratively and every other way.”

“We know that separating kids from their parents, even the most undesirable parents—those kids are still attached to their parents,” Graham says. “We had a kid recently, two years old, who had been in eight different foster homes. This is the way we screw kids up for the rest of their lives. If we can reduce these kids coming in, and heal families, we could change everything.”

Solution-oriented justice

Graham recalls the case of a pregnant 17-year-old girl with a two-page rap sheet who was about to be placed in a residential lockup facility in Orlando. Her baby would have been put in foster care and potentially continued a cycle that began, it turned out, when the mother was raped at age 7. She had never gotten proper care and carried that anger with her for a decade. She’d also witnessed family violence and had been involved with child welfare.

The judge was frustrated by the teen’s lack of progress, but upon reviewing her family history, he agreed to allow her to remain in the community with intensive service from the Young Parents Project, Graham says. The Young Parents Project provides a multidisciplinary team including a social worker, a nurse and an infant mental health specialist who visit the home weekly. They learn about the teen’s experiences, address physical and mental health needs and, when necessary, help prepare cases for court.

“The judge let her do a therapeutic sentence,” Graham says. “That got her into sexual abuse counseling, she got prenatal care, she had the baby, and it has turned her whole trajectory around.”

“Because it takes time and trusting relationships for court-involved young parents to stabilize and to begin to learn to keep their baby and others in mind, she will remain in the program for 12 to 24 months,” she says. “The judge recognized that intensive intervention services were needed to prevent future criminal behavior and to allow time to support change.”

Most judges appreciate having such options to match the intensity and breadth of needs that families have, Graham adds. “Judges will consider the serious impact of trauma on parenting capacity and criminal behavior, particularly for the youngest offenders,” she says. “They want to reduce the impact across generations. In most communities, they are seeking appropriate resources for complex families with infants and toddlers. However, it varies greatly whether these services are available.”

Tepper has created a list of providers who can do ACEs evaluation and trauma-informed assessments, to whom she makes referrals. She tells defendants, “I want you to have a trauma-informed assessment based on child abuse. I need you to talk about this. It’s not going to be easy. The reality is, this could be a [psychological] trigger for you. But this isn’t going to get better on its own. What we’re seeing here is the result of what happened to you, that shouldn’t have. Those things that were done to you are a crime.”

Lederman says the trauma-informed approach sometimes means that she requires different services be provided to a family, or for a longer time period. “How do we promote the reunification [of the family] to ensure that there won’t be recidivism?” she says. “I require the attorney before me to understand that this isn’t just a legal decision that needs to be made here. Every decision has a child development consequence. And the more we understand about child development, the better we’re able to help these families.”

Lining up for training

Such anecdotes and the science behind them have judges lining up for the training that Florida State provides, Graham says. “A lot of these judges don’t have any training in children and families,” she says. “We’re helping to bring the science to them, so they can make more informed decisions.” Infant and child mental health experts advise them about the warning signs of trouble in the home, how to react—and how not to react.

Tepper says she’s constantly sharing information with colleagues, especially those in family-related courts, and she’s encouraged that more than 1,000 judges from around the country, including many of the 250 or so family court or dependency court judges in Florida, have come to the training sessions that she, Graham and others have created. She figures that about 85 percent of dependency court judges and between 50 percent and 70 percent of domestic violence, juvenile and family court judges around the state have attended, along with attorneys, local service providers, parents and other stakeholders.

“Whatever it’s going to take to educate, we’re constantly sharing,” she says. “I’m always shocked as to how many judges don’t know about this.”

Susan Green, co-director of the Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care at the University of Buffalo, says that Chautauqua County is the only “fully engaged, trauma-informed court” in her region, although pieces of other systems have begun adopting the approach and, certainly, awareness is spreading.

“Five years ago, it would have been, ‘Huh?’ ” she says. “Now, more people have a knowledge base.”

Chautauqua County has undertaken cross-disciplinary training with judges, lawyers, court personnel, social workers and psychologists, Claire says. “We all have the same goal, but we don’t know each other well, and we’re suspicious of each other,” she says. “If the attorneys are trained but the person who calls the [court] calendar is yelling, in front of your client, ‘Your deadbeat client is here,’ that’s going to undermine the trauma-informed effort you’re making.”

The county calls this effort the Trauma Informed Champions Society, and there are quarterly meetings that the leaders try to make as fun as possible. For example, at one recent meeting they undertook a “speed dating” exercise in which participants questioned one another about themselves and learned all kinds of things they wouldn’t have known, Claire says.

“It was a lot of fun, and it was very productive,” she says. “We’ve built a level of trust and understanding. People are more willing to listen to one another. Courts are inherently adversarial. It’s not like a hospital setting, where you assume everybody’s on the same page.”

The end results of this trauma-informed work can be extremely rewarding, Claire says. “You’re never going to know the long-term ramifications,” she says. “It’s only been a couple of years, but I’ve already had people come back and say, ‘Do you remember the time when?’ They refer to something that didn’t seem like a big deal but caused them to think for the first time in their lives about, is there a better way to do this? We’re seeing people step up, many of them, to want to be better parents to their children, and they don’t know how, and they’re changing their lives.”