Trauma-Informed Judicial Practice

By Angela Snyder, CFCC Student Fellow 2015-2016
On June 1, 2015, the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) and the Maryland Administrative Office of the Courts’ Department of Family Administration convened Maryland’s Family Justice System: A Symposium. The keynote speaker at the event was Mr. Frank Kros, President of The Upside Down Organization and Executive Vice President of The Children’s Guild. Mr. Kros’s presentation centered on the issue of childhood trauma. He explained how chronic trauma influences children throughout their lifetime, how it changes the chemical makeup of the brain, and how courts should operate in order to better serve children who have experienced trauma.

According to Mr. Kros, the brain’s main function is survival, and the amygdala is the chief survival organ. The amygdala screens every piece of sensory information that enters the brain for potential physical or emotional threats. The amygdala controls the stress response system, which has three stages:

1. Alert: The amygdala is alerted of a potential threat. If there is no actual threat, the cycle stops here.
2. Stress Response: If there is a threat, the brain produces cortisol until the amygdala takes action to stop the threat.
3. Distress: If the threat cannot be stopped, the brain produces a double dose of cortisol and adrenaline to mandate some type of action to deal with the stress.

Excess cortisol can seep over to other areas in the brain, and it is toxic to the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the primary learning organ where our brains make memories. Cortisol kills cells in the hippocampus, which blocks memory and learning and compromises the immune function. Excess cortisol is linked to brain damage, poor social and verbal skills, memory impairment, aggression, impulsiveness, anxiety, and dissociation. Until cortisol is reduced to near normal ranges, damage to brain development is likely to continue. In cases of chronic, extreme stress, cortisol remains high, and the brain does not develop properly.

As traumatic stress is common among many court-involved children and youth, it is important that judges and court personnel are mindful not to add to the trauma that children have experienced. It is also important that they respond appropriately to trauma-impacted children and understand that certain behaviors that we may perceive as disrespectful or defiant may be better understood in the context of traumatic stress disorders. Kros suggests ways to improve the court experience:

1. Require a trauma screen and/or assessment on each child involved in the court
2. Learn about trauma and its impact on the developing brain
3. Transform the courtroom into a place where children feel invited, welcomed, educated, and heard

Do you think childhood trauma is an important factor for courts to consider when working with children and youth? If so, how do you think courts can incorporate trauma-informed judicial practices into their proceedings? To read the original blog on the symposium see:

2 thoughts on “Trauma-Informed Judicial Practice

  1. Angela,

    I really enjoyed this blog post, and I think it brings a really important issue to light that not many attorneys and legal actors consider when dealing with children. I saw Mr. Kros speak in Professor Babb’s Child and the Family class this semester. He was very engaging, and explained the physical and chemical manifestations of trauma on the brain.

    I also saw Dr. Robert Emery from the University of Virginia speak at the CFCC symposium this fall, and he stresses that parents and lawyers should consider the developmental stage of children when determining child custody agreements. This further supports Mr. Kros’ idea of trauma-informed lawyering, and focusing on the well-being of children when they are involved with courts,

    I completely agree that children involved with the courts should all go through a trauma screen, and attorneys and judges who work with children should be required to learn about trauma and its impact on the brain, and child development. Without these considerations, are we really using a “best interests” standard at all?

    • Laurie,
      I agree with your response to Angela’s question. Due to the detrimental effect trauma has on the brain and a child’s learning ability, I don’t think one can say they have taken the child’s best interest into account without the considerations mentioned above. I would even go a step further and say that judges who are going to hear family law cases, especially those involving Children In Need of Assistance (CINA), should be required to attend trauma-informed trainings before they are placed on the bench in family divisions. Same for attorneys working with children in the welfare system. As for all other attorneys, magistrates and judges, I think trauma-informed judicial practices should be incorporated into their continuing education courses.

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