Trauma-Informed Courts: A Public Health Approach to Juvenile Justice (2022-2023)

Background

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 trauma and adversity, and North Carolina is leading the way. In May 2021, North Carolina Chief Justice Paul Newby created the Task Force on ACEs-Informed Courts. In August, the Bolch Judicial Institute at Duke Law – the academic leader of this task force – hosted a pilot training for judges on childhood trauma. They heard from experts on the impact of trauma and changes they can make in their courtroom to create trauma-informed court practices and craft trauma-informed orders. 

Despite efforts to implement trauma-informed practices in the judicial context, little research has investigated their impact. Extant research has focused on the impact of trauma-focused therapies for individuals who are justice-involved, showing effects such as a reduction in violent behavior. However, the extent to which positive impacts may arise from courtroom-based practices is not yet known.

Project Description

This project team will seek to build a strong foundation of scientific research on trauma-informed care within the judicial system by investigating the real-world impacts of trauma-informed courtroom-based practices. Trauma-informed practices can be implemented in various ways within the court system. For instance, some practices are related to the environment of the courthouse (e.g., waiting area design, accessible signage). Other practices have to do with the ways in which judicial actors interact with those who come through the courtroom (e.g., a judge’s level of engagement with juveniles, discussion of trauma-related topics). Team members will assess the effects of multiple levels and types of trauma-informed practices and attitudes on a range of outcomes, focusing specifically on child welfare courts. 

The team will collect data on various indicators of a trauma-informed courtroom, including but not limited to, courthouse environment and judges’ behavior during hearings. Outcomes of interest will focus on the experiences of individuals and families who go through juvenile court using a blend of quantitative and qualitative methods. Some immediate post-hearing measures may include justice-involved persons’ perceptions of impact of hearings, motivation to change behavior and baseline quality of life measures. Team members will also aim to conduct follow-up assessments to reassess quality of life outcomes along with various system-related outcomes, such as recidivism and compliance with court orders. 

Team members will work with judges, Guardian ad Litem advocates (GALs) and/or juvenile probation officers to form relationships with and collect data from participants and may also collect data on court-level outcomes such as major incident reports, staff sick leave and use of restraints. 

Anticipated Outputs

Publications in peer-reviewed journals; publication in Judicature (Duke Bolch Judicial Institute); informational brief; evidence-based training materials

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this team will be comprised of 4-6 undergraduate students and 2 graduate student project managers. Students with backgrounds in sociology, anthropology, statistics, psychology, neuroscience, public policy and medical sciences are encouraged to apply. 

Student team members will have the opportunity to support the development of a novel empirical study at the intersection of psychology, policy and justice. Team members will meet weekly to discuss readings, engage in trauma education, hear from guest speakers, receive training in court observing and complete in-court work. Project managers will oversee and mentor the undergraduate team. 

All students will contribute to the main research goal of assessing the impact of trauma-informed court-based practices using quantitative and qualitative methods. As such, they will have opportunities to be involved in courtroom observations, interviewing of individuals and families who are court-involved, and data analysis and interpretation. Students may also provide input on a nationwide judicial education program based on data collected, and all team members will have the opportunity to contribute to research publications.

Selected team members will travel to surrounding areas in North Carolina to visit courthouses. Travel will occur during weekdays due to the nature of court scheduling but will take into account student availability. 

Timing

Summer 2022 – Summer 2023 

  • Summer 2022 (optional): Conduct literature review; develop research design
  • Fall 2022: Finalize study design and literature review; collaborate with NC courts; train team members in courtroom observation practices
  • Spring 2023: Conduct courthouse and hearing observations; conduct interviews
  • Summer 2023 (optional): Finish analysis; report findings; submit journal articles

Crediting

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

Judge and gavel.

Team Leaders

  • Eva McKinsey, North Carolina State University–Applied Social and Community Psychology–Ph.D. Student
  • Amelia Thorn, Duke Law

/graduate Team Members

  • Mary Aline Fertin, Juris Doctor
  • Catherine Gorey, Juris Doctor

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Shawn Marsh, University of Nevada