Problem-solving courts dig deep to acknowledge, and sometimes address trauma


Photo by Tim Evanson, Flickr photos


In a sense all courts solve problems, although traditionally, the approach is punitive – translating a crime into how many months or years a defendant owes society and warehousing him or her in a prison. While not excusing drug abuse, domestic violence, child neglect and other ills, problem-solving courts take a therapeutic solution-oriented approach to reduce recidivism and guide offenders toward productive lives.

Problem-solving courts began about a quarter-century ago and now number more than 3,000 across the United States, housed among the nation’s approximately 16,000 state courts but on separate dockets. Even though initially uninformed by the research around the consequences of adverse childhood experiences and the trauma-informed care movement, proponents say they have always addressed ACEs and trauma without necessarily knowing they were doing so.

Drug courts were the first type of problem-solving court, beginning with one established in Miami-Dade County, FL, in 1989, and they have become by far the most common. The National Drug Court Institute counted 2,734 in 2012 (the National Association of Drug Court Professionals provides this interactive map). The National Center for DWI Courts counted 651 courts that deal with those offenders as of 2013. The National Center of State Courts counted 401 mental health courts as of same year. Other types of problem-solving courts cover domestic violence, homelessness, prostitution, veterans’ issues, and early childhood. The latter are sometimes referred to as “Safe Babies” courts. (The numbers of specific types of courts cannot be simply added together because many, especially in urban areas, contain more than one type.)

Typically, problem-solving courts involve a judge who heads up a team that includes the attorneys, the defendant and a clinical professional who develops a well-defined case plan and carefully monitors the defendant’s compliance. Judges work with defendants from the starting point of what has happened to them, rather than what is wrong with them, and they meet frequently to develop communication and working relationships.

Nicole Waters

Nicole Waters

“Some of the programs that we’ve seen are trauma-informed programs,” says Nicole Waters, principal court research consultant for the national center. “Mental health courts and veteran’s courts definitely delve into trauma issues. There is a wide gamut of courts operating in this capacity to deal with underlying social problems.”

While the awareness of and practice in trauma-informed treatment is “on the rise,” Waters says, it’s hardly universal. “Some courts are doing [trauma] assessments and then not integrating that in their treatment plan, which is a problem,” she says. “Some courts are more aware than others.” Prostitution courts are among the most consistent in dealing with trauma, she adds, given that the sex trade often attracts those who have experienced abuse in the past.

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High cost of childhood trauma in Alaska is documented, especially in Alaskan Native people

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 9.28.16 AMAccording to two sobering reports that have been released on the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on Alaskans and on the state’s Native people, the prevalence of all of the eight ACEs measured was higher for Native Alaskans than non-Natives. Almost half of all Native Alaskans grew up with someone who had a substance abuse problem. The rate of sexual abuse is 32% among Alaska Native women, highest of any state’s ACE results. And the prevalence of four or more ACEs in the Native Alaskan community is nearly double that of non-Alaska Natives.

The reports give specificity to the health, economic, and social challenges that are widely recognized both in the general population and among Native Americans in the state. The data was derived from the optional ACEs module in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) survey conducted for the first time in Alaska in 2013.

Because of the strong demand for the information, the Alaska Tribal Health Consortium released an “Executive Summary” of the ACEs data on Alaska Native (AN) people in advance of the broader report, “Adverse Childhood Experiences: Overcoming ACEs in Alaska,” by the Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse and the Alaska Mental Health Board (AMHB /ABADA ).

The report on Alaska Native people compared ACEs with the non-Native Alaskan population while the comprehensive report compared all Alaskans with a proxy for a national sample (data from the five-state CDC report.) The prevalence of all of the eight ACEs measured was higher for Native Alaskans than non-Natives and significantly higher for five of the eight ACEs. Almost half of all ANs live with someone with a substance abuse problem, compared to approximately 30% of non-Natives. Comparing state and national data, Alaska’s measured rates were found to be higher on all 8 ACEs than in those five-state totals.

There was a significant difference between the prevalence of 4 or more ACEs in Alaska Native people compared to non-Alaska Natives—27.9% in contrast to 15.5%. The survey of the entire Alaska population compared to a proxy for a national population revealed that 17.3% of Alaskans have an ACE score of four or more compared to 15.2% in the national sample. If the number of Alaskans with an ACE score of 4 were reduced to the level reflected by the national survey—meaning 11,500 fewer Alaskans with a score of four—there would a highly positive impact on “many health, economic, and social outcomes,” according to the report.

The Alaska Native report found a similar prevalence of ACEs among AN females and males (i.e., divorce, verbal abuse, witness to domestic violence) except for sexual abuse which is estimated to be 32% for females compared to 11.7% for males. The extremely high level of sexual abuse throughout the state is a matter of grave and long-term concern for public health officials and family advocates throughout the state. Dr. Linda Chamberlain, director of Alaska Family Violence Prevention Project, visits with women throughout rural Alaska who report widespread sexual abuse—an experience she says is the norm rather than the exception.

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Patrick Sidmore

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Minnesota high school screens students for ACEs to develop trauma-informed education


Paladin students on a field trip to Minneapolis to see the play, Romeo and Juliet.


At many high schools across the U.S, it’s spring break time. Most kids and teachers can’t wait to get away from school with their families for a week.

Not so at Paladin Career & Technical High School in Blaine, MN, outside Minneapolis.

“The week before break the level of anxiety gets pretty extreme around here,” says Leisa Irwin executive director of Paladin. “It’s the same before any holiday break.”

The kids don’t want to leave…for good reason. There’s nothing fun or relaxing about spending a week at home. Most students come from homes and neighborhoods filled with violence, alcohol and drug abuse. They live with families where humiliation, neglect, mental illness and hopelessness are part of everyday life. A stark 34% of Paladin students are homeless; they hang out on dangerous streets for a week in cold weather. The school is their haven.

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A trauma-informed school wasn’t part of my plan, but now it’s my life’s work

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 8.40.07 PMIn the summer of 2011, July 22nd to be exact, I took an interim position at Paladin Career and Technical High School as the executive director, while the school board started a search for a permanent director. At the time, I owned two companies and Paladin was one of my clients. I loved what the school did and helping to bridge the leadership gap during a search process was an easy decision to make. But I also loved working with the other schools, where I served as the chief financial officer through my consulting business. The decision to take on that interim role has irreversibly changed my life. And I can’t imagine doing anything else. I was hired as the executive director, no longer interim, at the end of the school year, and I closed my consulting company.

I came to Paladin with a business focus.  I wanted the school to be the best it could be. I wanted the data to reflect its success and I wanted the story of the school’s hard work to be indisputable. In the world of education, that meant telling the story of test scores, graduation rates, attendance rates, and fiscal strength. It meant telling a story that was in alignment with all the pressure from news media and legislation, a story that focused on core standards and high stakes testing.

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Juvenile jails adopting ACE- and trauma-informed practices

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” – Frederick Douglass

Jane Halladay, director of the service systems program at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which developed the Think Trauma curriculum for staff members in juvenile correctional facilities, remembers a young man who was very difficult to handle, especially first thing in the morning.

When he woke up, it was as if he had just emerged from battling demons in his dreams. “He was extremely confrontational, aggressive, ready for a fight,” Halladay says. “In treatment, it came out that the staff woke people up by turning on and off the lights – and it came out that he had once been stabbed in the neck and had come to in the ambulance.

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Midwest Regional Summit: Talking ACEs and community trauma-informed solutions

Laura Porter, co-founder ACE Interface (Mike Kelly photo)

Laura Porter, co-founder ACE Interface (Mike Kelly photo)


CHICAGO—Across the United States these days, it seems as if hardly a week goes by without a conference or a workshop about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and how people are implementing trauma-informed and resilience-building practices in their organizations — including schools, prisons, homeless shelters, hospitals, medical clinics, youth services or businesses.

This month ACEs and trauma conferences and workshops were held in Los Angeles, Santa Rosa and Pasadena, CA, in Dover, DE, Brainerd, MN, Austin, TX, and, the 2015 Midwest Regional Summit on Adverse Childhood Experiences held March 12-13 at Loyola University School of Law in Chicago.

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Juvenile detention centers: On the other side of “lock ‘em ‘up”, but not quite trauma-informed


There are three ways to look at how the juvenile justice system is using modern practices to reduce youth crime and violence.

  1. One is what happens on the way to the detention center where a kid is held until trial – i.e., how the system decides which kids must be locked up, and who can live at home or in a group home until their trial date.
  2. The second is inside detention center walls – what happens to kids inside these mostly county-run centers while they’re awaiting trial.
  3. The third is inside the correctional facilities where youth serve out their sentences. These are usually run by states.

There’s a lot of progress in revamping what happens to kids on the way to detention centers – in fact, 300

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