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6.3 Trauma-Informed Courts

Resource: The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) has a bench card on what it means to be a trauma-informed judge. Judicial officers often rely on bench cards, which are very brief summaries of law or recommended best practices that they literally keep in the courtroom (i.e., “on the bench”).

The court plays a significant role in the criminal justice process as the venue where traffickers are tried and where victims can seek justice and find resolution, whether they encounter the court system as victim-witnesses or victim-defendants. Through trauma-informed procedures, courts can enhance the victim’s belief in procedural justice, decreasing the potentially negative experiences they may have in court, regardless of the outcome of the case. If the courts are to be effective in their delivery of fairness and justice, they need to be aware of the underlying trauma of many individuals with whom they will interact within their courts. Very often, individuals in cases involving domestic violence or abuse, civil or criminal child abuse, truancy, and juvenile and adult crimes all have one common trait—their own undiagnosed and untreated trauma.

In an effort to create a trauma-informed court, task forces can consider either approaching an individual courtroom or the chief judicial officer of the jurisdiction. In larger jurisdictions, a small number of judicial officers might preside over the cases most likely to involve trauma-effected individuals; in smaller jurisdictions, only one or two presiding judicial officers may handle all case types.

Additional recommendations for creating a trauma-informed courtroom include the following:

  • Encourage Suggestions from Other Court Stakeholders. Encourage parties to cases, attorneys, and guardians ad litem to make specific requests for any possible and reasonable adjustment to the proceedings.
  • Step Down and and Leave the Judge’s Robe at the Bench. On a limited basis, if no one’s personal safety is compromised, a judicial officer may consider sitting at the victim’s table with the pro se party, especially if the victim does not have legal representation, or with any minor child and the child’s guardian ad litem or court-appointed special advocate. If a judicial officer elects to join the parties at the tables, the officer might consider literally leaving the judge’s robe on the bench and thus appearing more “normal.” The intimidation factor perceived by pro se parties and children in a courtroom when interacting with an authority figure (dressed differently and seated in an elevated location) can invoke trauma triggers or otherwise discourage interaction.
  • Adjust the Lighting in the Courtroom. Often courtrooms have multiple lighting options, and decreasing the lighting may feel more comfortable to individuals who are light sensitive or have certain sensory limitations. Discuss this with the victim, victim’s case manager, or representative to ensure that dimming the lights is not potentially triggering.
  • Provide Simple Conveniences Like a Box of Tissues or a Bowl of Snacks. Aside from providing an energy boost for anyone in the courtroom, a piece of candy or fruit can often help victims feel calmer and more welcome.

For additional information, visit Resources 6.3.