A Trauma-Informed Approach to Court: An Exploratory Research Project (2023-2024)


In the 1990s, Kaiser Permanente asked over 17,000 people about their “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs). Researchers were astounded by the results — not only was trauma more prevalent than expected, but there was a clear association between ACEs and adverse health outcomes. 

These findings have been used to improve wellness across disciplines beyond the health context. Teachers, social workers and police forces are trained on the importance of trauma. Research shows that education on trauma can increase the confidence of people who work with traumatized individuals, improve attitudes toward people with severe mental illness and expand relationship-building capacity in various settings.

The justice system is now poised to address ACEs, and North Carolina is leading the way. In May 2021, North Carolina Chief Justice Paul Newby created the Task Force on ACEs-Informed Courts. Since then, the Bolch Judicial Institute of Duke Law School has developed and delivered an educational curriculum for judges on childhood trauma. Yet, despite efforts to implement trauma-informed practices in the judicial context, little research has investigated their impact. Extant research has shown positive effects of trauma-focused therapies for justice-involved individuals, but the impact of courtroom-based interventions requires further study.

Project Description

Building on the work of the 2022-2023 project team, this team will seek to understand whether judges’ employment of trauma-informed methods improves outcomes for youth who are court-involved. Judges have indicated that they would be more likely to adopt trauma-informed practices — and to encourage others to do the same — if they could be armed with such data. 

Team members will investigate three specific questions: 

  1. Are trauma-informed court practices employed in an equitable manner in North Carolina juvenile delinquency court?
  2. To what extent does employment of trauma-informed court practices correlate with various outcomes for court-involved youth, such as perceptions of court, social connectedness and traumatic stress symptomology?
  3. What are North Carolina judges’ attitudes related to trauma-informed care? 

The team will utilize a court observation tool developed by the 2022-2023 team to assess the extent to which a courtroom and specific hearings are trauma-informed. They will conduct court observation visits across the state, focusing on juvenile delinquency court. The team will also learn about the experiences of court-involved youth using surveys and interviews. Following this observation and data collection, team members will analyze their findings with both statistical and qualitative methods.

Anticipated Outputs

Publications in peer-reviewed journals; publications in Judicature, a scholarly journal published by Bolch Judicial Institute; training materials for judicial actors

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project will include 2 graduate students and 4-6 undergraduate students from disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, statistics, psychology, neuroscience, public policy, political science, pre-law and/or the medical sciences.

Students will have the opportunity to support the development of a novel empirical study at the intersection of psychology, policy and justice that has direct public interest implications. They will observe courtrooms and judges and conduct in-depth interviews with individuals who are justice-involved. They will also survey and interview young people who have experienced juvenile delinquency court. They will be exposed to the criminal legal system, judges, scholars and trauma experts, including a trauma-informed judiciary task force headed by the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Students will also have the opportunity to contribute to scholarly publications.

This project includes an optional summer component in summer 2023. Students can assist as their schedule permits. Ideally, there will be students observing court 1-3 times per week. 

Team members will travel to various locations in North Carolina to observe court in Fall 2023.

Catherine Gorey and Samuel Lawrence will serve as project managers.


Summer 2023 – Summer 2024

  • Summer 2023 (optional): Conduct court observations; identify recruitment process for juveniles to be surveyed
  • Fall 2023: Continue court observations; conduct juvenile surveys and interviews with identified individuals; begin analysis of court observation data and judicial data linking; continue writing up results from survey of North Carolina district court judges on their attitudes related to trauma-informed care
  • Spring 2024: Continue court observations; conduct juvenile surveys with identified individuals; finish analysis and interpretation of data; report findings and writing for publication; incorporate into education materials and prepare for publication submissions
  • Summer 2024 (optional): Continue to work on reporting findings and writing for publication


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

This Team in the News

Two Graduate Students Honored for Their Exceptional Mentorship

Bass Connections Team Finishes Court Observation Phase of Trauma-Informed Courts Research Project 


See earlier related team, Trauma-Informed Courts: A Public Health Approach to Juvenile Justice (2022-2023).


Image: Judge Hammer, by ssalonso, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Judge's hammer.

Team Leaders

  • Catherine Gorey, Duke Law–JD Student
  • Eva McKinsey, Applied Social and Community Psychologist-Independent Research Scholar
  • Amelia Thorn, Duke Law

/graduate Team Members

  • Ebani Dhawan, Bioethics and Sci Policy - AM
  • Emily Fung, Juris Doctor
  • Jade Terry, Psychology-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Lauren Allen, Psychology (AB)
  • Cassandra Ameen, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Tess Bierly
  • Grace Davis
  • Kaitlyn Hanson, Psychology (BS)
  • Ana Herndon, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Minjee Kim, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Hanna Lavi
  • Anya Milberg

/zcommunity Team Members

  • NC Administrative Office of the Courts
  • NC Chief Justice’s Task Force on ACEs-Informed Courts (Adverse Childhood Experiences)