Trauma-informed judges take gentler approach, administer problem-solving justice to stop cycle of ACEs

Judge Lynn Tepper hugs Taylor, 11, at his final adoption hearing. Before finding his permanent home, he'd been returned by three families since being removed from his biological mother when he was three years old.

Judge Lynn Tepper hugs Taylor, 11, at his final adoption hearing. Before finding his permanent home, he’d been returned by three families. [Photo: Edmund D. Fountain, Tampa Bay Times]

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Three years ago, Judge Lynn Tepper of Florida’s Sixth Judicial Circuit Court in Dade City, FL, learned about the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study The ground-breaking research links childhood abuse and neglect with adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence.

It was like flipping a switch.

“I suddenly had this trauma-informed lens, as we call it. I see it everywhere,” she says, giving an example of someone in front of her on child abuse charges for whom she might recommend counseling and/or anger management. “I have discovered the reality is that when I start asking a few questions, that parent or partner has experienced ACEs,” she says.

The 10 types of childhood trauma measured in the ACE Study are: physical, verbal and sexual abuse, and physical and emotional neglect; a family member who abused alcohol or other drugs, who was depressed or mentally ill, or was in prison; witnessing a mother being abused, and loss of a parent through separation or divorce.

Tepper, a veteran of 37 years on the bench, realized that childhood trauma experienced by the people who ended up in her courtroom was much worse than their paperwork showed. “When you dig down deeper, you wonder how these people get up in the morning,” she says. “I remember thinking at one point, ‘Oh boy, did we blow it all these years on these delinquents.’ ”

Most judges in the United States are unfamiliar with the ACE Study and the research on the neurobiology of toxic stress that has emerged over the last 15 years. But that’s beginning to change in courtrooms across the U.S., due to a number of educational programs aimed at producing trauma-informed judges—and courts. As a result, trauma-informed judges have made three big changes:

  • They’ve modified their courts to be safer and less threatening to defendants with histories of childhood trauma and who are often already traumatized.
  • They recognize that trauma is passed from one generation to another, and take a two- or three-generational approach in child abuse and neglect cases.
  • Because, they say, the traditional approach in criminal justice continues the traumatization of children, youth and families, they’re taking a solution-oriented approach.

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