International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Bridging the Trauma Research-Practice Divide: Juvenile Court Trauma Audits

Posted 23 March 2014 in StressPoints by Carly B. Dierkhising, MA, and Shawn Marsh, PhD

More than ever before, juvenile courts and their affiliated stakeholders are coming to appreciate and understand the impact of trauma on social and emotional functioning among the children and families they serve. This increasing awareness in local jurisdictions is paralleled by a growing focus on utilizing trauma-informed practices in juvenile justice system reform at the federal level (e.g., Defending Childhood Initiative).

While juvenile courts are striving to be trauma-informed, they are finding it challenging to translate research to real-world courtroom practice. Ultimately, recognizing the prevalence of trauma histories in system-involved youth and families and understanding the developmental implications of trauma doesn’t necessarily help a judge or an attorney in the courtroom. Rather, juvenile courts need to know how to connect trauma research to courtroom practices and policies in order to help improve the lives of children and families.

To bridge this research to practice gap, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) in collaboration with affiliates from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) launched a formative project with select courts across the United States to develop a trauma audit protocol for juvenile court settings. With funding support from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), the development team worked with six pilot courts from a range of diverse geographical and socioeconomic jurisdictions to explore how to define and assess what it means to be a trauma-informed juvenile court at a conceptual and operational level.

The initial conceptual framework was founded on the key principles that (1) juvenile and family courts have an integral role in the healing process of the traumatized youth and families they serve; (2) all court stakeholders should feel a sense of safety and personal agency when engaged with the court; and (3) court environment, practices, and policies impact all court stakeholders.

Building on this conceptual framework, a trauma audit is an external review of a juvenile court’s practices, policies, and environment to assess how a juvenile court responds to trauma and is sensitive to traumatic stress from a variety of perspectives (i.e., all court stakeholders – including both consumers and staff). The goal of an audit is to capture a snapshot of a typical encounter a system-involved youth or family has with the juvenile court. Development of this snapshot includes information gathering via focus groups and interviews with myriad stakeholders (e.g., attorneys, social workers, treatment providers, security staff, judges, etc.); environmental observations; reviews of case files; and observing court hearings.

An essential part of the trauma audit is a multidisciplinary audit team with particular expertise in the areas of trauma, social psychology, clinical psychology, developmental psychology, domestic violence, dependency, juvenile justice, and social science research methods. Following a trauma audit, a juvenile court receives a set of individualized recommendations that outlines ways to implement and/or improve trauma-informed practices in that particular jurisdiction.

Although the protocol for a trauma audit is still in development, preliminary findings from working with the pilot sites have contributed to exciting advances as well as identifying important challenges in creating trauma-informed juvenile courts. It is clear that juvenile courts are recognizing that they are a critical point of intervention for trauma-exposed children and families because they are uniquely positioned to intervene with this population when they are most vulnerable and in need of services.

However, courts need clear guidelines on which services are most appropriate and when those services should be offered. There is also a growing realization that agencies and their staff must work together for trauma-informed juvenile courts to be successful, and part of the collaboration process is having a shared vision within and across stakeholders of what constitutes a trauma-informed juvenile court. This shared vision is especially important because of the inherent variance among juvenile courts: each court is influenced by their understanding of trauma; geographic region (e.g., tribal, rural, and urban); local policy; structure of the court (e.g., separate dependency and delinquency dockets); size of the community they serve; and a host of other factors that are often out of the juvenile court’s control.

Thus, being a trauma-informed juvenile court is not a one-size-fits-all model. Whereas there are common themes across courts (e.g., providing trauma assessments and treatments, cultural competency, secondary traumatic stress), the development of a trauma-informed court is relatively specific to each jurisdiction.

Moving forward, NCJFCJ intends to expand the scope of and, ultimately, the impact of the trauma audits. For this work to be sustainable, we realize that it is not enough to only improve the response to trauma in the courtroom; we need to empirically demonstrate that recommended changes in practices, policies, and environments improve the lives of children, youth, and families over time.

Juvenile courts also must be invested in long-term reform efforts so that the audit is not considered a quick fix. Rather, increasing the degree to which a given court is trauma-informed is an ongoing, focused, and well-considered effort. Currently, NCJFCJ -- with funding from OJJDP and in collaboration with NCTSN affiliates -- is developing an informational and decision-making guide for juvenile courts to assist them in deciding whether a trauma audit is right for their jurisdiction. In part, this guide encourages juvenile courts to determine whether they have the judicial leadership necessary for system-level change, whether they have the buy-in across stakeholders, and if they are committed to sustaining the work.

With additional development of the audit protocol, experience of the audit team(s), and cooperation of juvenile courts across the country, we hope to continue to find meaningful and evidence-informed ways to help some of our most vulnerable populations.

About the Authors

Carly B. Dierkhising, MA, is a doctoral candidate in developmental psychology at the University of California, Riverside. Her research focuses primarily on trauma, delinquency and juvenile justice reform. She is an affiliate of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress and provides consultation for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

Shawn C. Marsh, PhD, is the Chief Program Officer over juvenile law at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and is affiliated with several academic departments at the University of Nevada. Dr. Marsh is a social psychologist with research and teaching interests in the areas of psychology and the law, adolescent development, resiliency, and juvenile justice.