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]


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.

claireThe traditional approach doesn’t work anymore, says Chautauqua County (N.Y.) Family Court Judge Judith Claire, because it fails to address the underlying issues. By simply entering an order of protection against domestic violence, for example, the courts don’t teach family members healthy patterns of functioning that many have never learned, she says. Those patterns include how to make good decisions, how to deal constructively with emotions, and what constitutes healthy parenting if they have not received that blessing themselves.

“With problem-solving justice and the trauma-informed delivery of services, you hopefully are addressing those underlying problems,” says Claire, who became trauma-informed through an education program with the Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care at the University of Buffalo. “You’re recognizing that you’re not dealing with an isolated situation, and unless you break that cycle, that next generation is going to have the same issues, or the parents before you are going to keep coming back.”

Claire notes that, over the last 15 years, many family courts have shifted from “the revolving door of justice, which doesn’t help anybody,” to more of a problem-solving approach, and she believes greater awareness about ACEs and trauma will help such an approach continue to take root. “There’s no question that the overwhelming majority of people who come to our court have experienced some sort of trauma,” she says.

She describes the results of such transformations in the courtroom as “fairly remarkable, very successful, and maybe even astonishing.” She says that “in the past, we said to people, ‘Here’s what you need to do, here’s what your problem is.’ And then we’d shake our heads and say, ‘Why did that person not do those things? What’s wrong with them?’ That didn’t work. If you keep doing something that doesn’t work, you need to perhaps figure out what you’re doing wrong.”

Dr. Mimi Graham, director of the Center for Prevention and Early Intervention Policy at Florida State University, where GrahamTepper learned about ACEs and trauma-informed practices, explains the change in approach to being trauma-informed by citing a fable: People see babies floating down the river near their town, and they pull them to safety one at a time. Finally, somebody figures out that they had better go upstream and find out who’s tossing the babies into the river.

“We’ve had quantum leaps in neuroscience, around [emotional] attachments and the science of adversity,” she says. “We know what works in helping to treat and heal the adversity, and yet we’ve got so many adults walking around whose childhood adversities were never treated.”

A kinder, gentler courtroom

In one of the first cases after Tepper had her revelation, a young man who had allegedly sexually assaulted a sibling appeared in her court. When she looked at his rap sheet, it listed about a dozen battery cases. “That’s consistent with a child who’s been a victim of sexual molestation that’s not been revealed,” she says. “I started digging around with him and found out he was a victim of sex abuse in the foster care system in California. And nobody [in the court system] knew about it. He had even gone to treatment for sex abuse. I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, how could we have missed this?’ ”

Now, Tepper is always on the lookout for such histories in people with a violent past. “To me that is a clear indicator, I bet somebody’s been a victim of child sex abuse,” she says. “It’s almost like I have radar to spot the telltale signs.”

She cites the example of a young woman who had her first child at age 14 as a result of being raped, and yet the system was treating her as if she was irresponsible. “Somebody committed a crime against you,” she told the girl. “Our goal is to get you to somebody you are comfortable talking to, so you can get control over the past. I want you to be happy. You’re entitled to be happy.”

After the defendants hear such kinder, gentler words, Tepper says, “there’s a tremendous transformation in 20 minutes. Over and over again, it’s just vast changes. Moms who have lost seven kids in the past [to the child welfare system] can get it right. We’re at the tip of the iceberg, in terms of what we can do to transform the court system.”

Chautauqua Family Court is also very conscious about making sure that defendants feel safe rather than intimidated, which sometimes requires that judges check their hard-boiled attitudes at the courtroom door, Claire says. She recalls a case where a father had punished a child by placing the child inside a washing machine, and he nevertheless insisted that he had been a good father.

“I said to him, in a conversational tone of challenge, ‘Most people would not consider putting this child in this appliance a good example of child care,’ ” Claire says. “You could have heard a pin drop. He stopped protesting. But we certainly weren’t able to reach him in any constructive way. What I did was not trauma-informed. I didn’t insult him. I didn’t say, ‘You’re a lousy parent, or an awful person,’ but he didn’t feel safe.”

In hindsight, Claire says she would not have called attention to him with 100 people in the courtroom but would have asked him to think about other, better ways to discipline a child that society would look upon with greater approval. Instead of asking, “What will you do differently?” Claire might have asked, “What will the child notice that’s different?”

She also might have asked, “How do you think little Johnny feels when he’s put in the washing machine and the lid is clamped down, and he can’t get out?” she says. “What do you think Johnny will learn in the future if you try ‘X?” Claire adds, “That not only makes that person think about it from a point of view other than their own, but it might make them think about other more positive ways to handle it.”

In other cases involving people with mental health diagnoses, Claire has seen some who had previously avoided courts “like a plague” in proceedings involving their children now come in and participate in their cases.

Claire recalls one mother of “a number of children, with different partners” who hadn’t been inside a court building “for years,” and who’s a well-known persona in the community. “She’s often homeless. People take pity on her. Local restaurants feed her,” she says. “She’s the kind the mutters to herself, looks unkempt, what have you. She’s been charged with lots of low-level crimes, and she wouldn’t come to court.”

The woman is incapable of caring for her children, Claire says, but she clearly loves them “within her degree of capabilities.” Some of the woman’s children are now teenagers, and Claire has begun to see some of them in court for their own child neglect cases over the past two or three years.

One day, the woman finally showed up for the first time in many years, muttered to herself and refused to take off her hat as required in the courtroom. She began yelling when the deputies approach her, and they looked to the bench as if waiting to Claire to tell them to eject her from the court. Claire did not.

“I struggled with this one,” she says. “I thought, ‘I have to balance the needs of everybody else in the courtroom against her needs. I didn’t want to send a wrong message.” If Claire had felt as if the woman was a threat, she would have ejected her. But she decided that wearing a ball cap did not constitute a threat and perhaps it gave the woman a sense of psychological security.

Claire’s low-key response apparently made an impression.

“She started coming more and more” to her children’s hearings, Claire says. “She began sitting in her chair more quietly, listening, and then started participating, standing by her children when their case was called and behaving fairly appropriately for a courtroom setting. Although she has never articulated it, the very fact that she was doing these things showed [the trauma-informed approach] was working because we had years of her coming in and stalking about and making a big scene, or just not bothering to show up at all.”

The change in judicial approach undercuts the defiance and hostility judges sometimes face, Claire says. “I’m used to people coming into court and glaring at us,” she says. “Now, people often come in and they smile. They no longer are resistant. We don’t have to waste the first four months trying to get through to them. We see better results.”

It’s not that defendants have likely heard ahead of time how the courts have changed their approach, she says. But when they enter hostile, defiant, frightened and intimidated—and instead of a confrontational or sarcastic approach, the judge starts asking probing, personal questions in a kind manner and pays attention to their answers—their image of the courts as part of the evil system that’s out to get them fades away.

“They realize that maybe this isn’t a hostile environment, or maybe this is a place they can feel safe,” Claire says.

Unless someone intervenes, trauma is passed on from one generation to the next

Miami Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, co-founder of the Miami Child Well Being Court, works with parents and childrenLederman in abuse, neglect and abandonment cases. “Years ago, we didn’t look for [evidence of trauma],” she says. “Families would keep coming back, and back, and back. It’s been an educational process of everyone involved with these families, about the level of trauma, and the ability to effectively deal with it to achieve our goals.”

Family courts that have adopted a trauma-informed approach have uncovered pervasive, multigenerational ACEs that have been passed down like perverse heirlooms. “Once you’re able to heal that trauma, it unleashes the capacity of parents to parent, and to lead a regular life,” says Graham. “The trauma-informed court is as big to the court [system] as penicillin was to medicine.”

Claire says she sometimes deals with the fourth generation of family members with the same emotional issues. “The people keep coming back and keep coming back, and then their children are coming back,” she says. “It seems as though the traditional area, in a neglect case or abuse case or whatever, to make a finding, set up a plan, and then the case is over and done with, doesn’t really work. It isn’t a useful way to handle things. And it’s not just those people in that case who pay the cost. It’s society that pays the cost, literally, figuratively and every other way.”

“We know that separating kids from their parents, even the most undesirable parents—those kids are still attached to their parents,” Graham says. “We had a kid recently, two years old, who had been in eight different foster homes. This is the way we screw kids up for the rest of their lives. If we can reduce these kids coming in, and heal families, we could change everything.”

Solution-oriented justice

Graham recalls the case of a pregnant 17-year-old girl with a two-page rap sheet who was about to be placed in a residential lockup facility in Orlando. Her baby would have been put in foster care and potentially continued a cycle that began, it turned out, when the mother was raped at age 7. She had never gotten proper care and carried that anger with her for a decade. She’d also witnessed family violence and had been involved with child welfare.

The judge was frustrated by the teen’s lack of progress, but upon reviewing her family history, he agreed to allow her to remain in the community with intensive service from the Young Parents Project, Graham says. The Young Parents Project provides a multidisciplinary team including a social worker, a nurse and an infant mental health specialist who visit the home weekly. They learn about the teen’s experiences, address physical and mental health needs and, when necessary, help prepare cases for court.

“The judge let her do a therapeutic sentence,” Graham says. “That got her into sexual abuse counseling, she got prenatal care, she had the baby, and it has turned her whole trajectory around.”

“Because it takes time and trusting relationships for court-involved young parents to stabilize and to begin to learn to keep their baby and others in mind, she will remain in the program for 12 to 24 months,” she says. “The judge recognized that intensive intervention services were needed to prevent future criminal behavior and to allow time to support change.”

Most judges appreciate having such options to match the intensity and breadth of needs that families have, Graham adds. “Judges will consider the serious impact of trauma on parenting capacity and criminal behavior, particularly for the youngest offenders,” she says. “They want to reduce the impact across generations. In most communities, they are seeking appropriate resources for complex families with infants and toddlers. However, it varies greatly whether these services are available.”

Tepper has created a list of providers who can do ACEs evaluation and trauma-informed assessments, to whom she makes referrals. She tells defendants, “I want you to have a trauma-informed assessment based on child abuse. I need you to talk about this. It’s not going to be easy. The reality is, this could be a [psychological] trigger for you. But this isn’t going to get better on its own. What we’re seeing here is the result of what happened to you, that shouldn’t have. Those things that were done to you are a crime.”

Lederman says the trauma-informed approach sometimes means that she requires different services be provided to a family, or for a longer time period. “How do we promote the reunification [of the family] to ensure that there won’t be recidivism?” she says. “I require the attorney before me to understand that this isn’t just a legal decision that needs to be made here. Every decision has a child development consequence. And the more we understand about child development, the better we’re able to help these families.”

Lining up for training

Such anecdotes and the science behind them have judges lining up for the training that Florida State provides, Graham says. “A lot of these judges don’t have any training in children and families,” she says. “We’re helping to bring the science to them, so they can make more informed decisions.” Infant and child mental health experts advise them about the warning signs of trouble in the home, how to react—and how not to react.

Judge Tepper allows therapy dogs in the courtroom. [Photo: Brendan Fitterer, Tampa Bay Times]

Judge Tepper allows therapy dogs in the courtroom. [Photo: Brendan Fitterer, Tampa Bay Times]


Tepper says she’s constantly sharing information with colleagues, especially those in family-related courts, and she’s encouraged that more than 1,000 judges from around the country, including many of the 250 or so family court or dependency court judges in Florida, have come to the training sessions that she, Graham and others have created. She figures that about 85 percent of dependency court judges and between 50 percent and 70 percent of domestic violence, juvenile and family court judges around the state have attended, along with attorneys, local service providers, parents and other stakeholders.

“Whatever it’s going to take to educate, we’re constantly sharing,” she says. “I’m always shocked as to how many judges don’t know about this.”

GreenSusan Green, co-director of the Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care at the University of Buffalo, says that Chautauqua County is the only “fully engaged, trauma-informed court” in her region, although pieces of other systems have begun adopting the approach and, certainly, awareness is spreading.

“Five years ago, it would have been, ‘Huh?’ ” she says. “Now, more people have a knowledge base.”

Chautauqua County has undertaken cross-disciplinary training with judges, lawyers, court personnel, social workers and psychologists, Claire says. “We all have the same goal, but we don’t know each other well, and we’re suspicious of each other,” she says. “If the attorneys are trained but the person who calls the [court] calendar is yelling, in front of your client, ‘Your deadbeat client is here,’ that’s going to undermine the trauma-informed effort you’re making.”

The county calls this effort the Trauma Informed Champions Society, and there are quarterly meetings that the leaders try to make as fun as possible. For example, at one recent meeting they undertook a “speed dating” exercise in which participants questioned one another about themselves and learned all kinds of things they wouldn’t have known, Claire says.

“It was a lot of fun, and it was very productive,” she says. “We’ve built a level of trust and understanding. People are more willing to listen to one another. Courts are inherently adversarial. It’s not like a hospital setting, where you assume everybody’s on the same page.”

The end results of this trauma-informed work can be extremely rewarding, Claire says. “You’re never going to know the long-term ramifications,” she says. “It’s only been a couple of years, but I’ve already had people come back and say, ‘Do you remember the time when?’ They refer to something that didn’t seem like a big deal but caused them to think for the first time in their lives about, is there a better way to do this? We’re seeing people step up, many of them, to want to be better parents to their children, and they don’t know how, and they’re changing their lives.”

15 responses

  1. This is wonderful news. But why has this taken so long?

    How hard is it to come to the realization that child abuse and trauma is going to cause life long problems for that person?

    autistic people are often said to be lacking in empathy. but from what I see, neuro typicals have almost no empathy themselves. (yes, I am considered HF ASD).

    There is a book about neuro typicals and the way that the justice system rehabilitates children. It happened in Florida. The book is called The White House Boys. It has nothing to do with politics, it is a true and horrifying story about a reform school for boys.

    When I tried to tell the school psychologist that I was being abused, do you know what he said to me?!?! He said that it was normal for parents to beat their children. That when he himself had been a child that his father had beaten him with a belt and he came out fine. He said that I was simply being punished for my ~bad behavior~. My so-called bad behavior consisted of autism and ADHD and a strong reaction to being bullied at school and abused at home. And it was because of this behavior, that it was necessary, according to him, to beat the krap out of me.

    Both of my parents had been abused as children and they passed that favor on to me. The people who should have intervened utterly failed to do so.

    My childhood was a living hell, a nearly endless nightmare. The amazing thing is that I am still alive. On a number of occasions I felt as if I had been driven to the brink of insanity. I can’t even count the number of times that I wished I was dead. And then there were the two occasions when I faced the very real possibility of death at the hands of bullies. or how about the time I was molested by a security guard and nobody believed me, I was lucky he didn’t rape me. But then later I was raped by a church minister.

    But then after all of that, I somehow mange to graduate from high school — thanks to a couple of teachers who actually believed in me when no one else did. It helps that I have a very high IQ. So then as soon as I graduate, my parents abandon me. So long good luck have a good life. I was given a handshake and nothing more.

    And somehow I am supposed to now magically function as a normal adult, despite being terrified that at any moment I will be attacked, because that was what my experience with school bullies had been. Despite the fact that I have panic attacks on a daily basis, and nightmares from which I wake up screaming.

    Somehow I am expected to behave in a perfectly normal fashion. Somehow I am supposed to just get over it and get on with my life…

    Well, I have spent much of my adult life being homeless. I’m nearly 60 now and just recently finally started getting some trauma counseling. And I still wish I was dead nearly as much as my desire to live.

    One of the hardest parts about getting help was my fear of people. the other hardest part of getting help is the tremendous lack of resources available. I am still not getting help for the autism, but that is getting closer to happening, maybe. I do now have an official diagnosis. But again there appears to be an almost complete lack of resources for adults with autism, even though there does appear to be an increasing amount available for children.

    my parents never intended to be abusive. they simply could not help themselves because of the abuse that they had suffered. I actually now do have a good relationship with my parents. But growing up I mostly felt unloved and unwanted. When I was about 4 years old I tried to seriously injure myself in the hopes that if I were injured then someone would [have empathy for me] and want to take care of me. I did not succeed in injuring myself, but that is how corrosive my childhood was.

    and I still don’t have the help that I need. The backlog is so great and the resources are so few that it took a year just to get the diagnosis of autism. It also took about a year to finally get in to see a trauma counselor about the PTSD.

    and then there were the other times in my life that I tried to get counseling and ended up with charlatans instead. apparently the bar for claiming to be a counselor is very low.

    I also came to the realization that only rich people can afford to have mental problems because there was nothing affordable to a person making minimum wage. The absolute cheapest at a special discounted rate was $20 per hour at a time when I was only making $3 per hour. The next cheapest was $60 an hour to some guy who after several sessions claimed that the solution to all of my problems was to join an ashram and pray at the feet of his guru. I wish I were kidding but it actually happened.

    Thanks to obamacare and the fact that I am homeless, the state is now finally making it possible for me to see a counselor, but as I said before, it was a one year waiting list to get in. what am I supposed to do in the meantime??? and I am still on the waiting list to get some kind of autism services… except that the services appear to be quite ephemeral. I was given assurances that it would not take another year of waiting before someone would help me. But so far I have not been given any dates or told about any specific programs, just vague assurances that I would be helped eventually.

    I could have been / should have been, doing so much with my life. My level of intelligence is such that I could have been designing robots or sending rockets to mars or a hundred other worthwhile things. But because there was never any help when I needed it, my potential to make a contribution has been largely squandered and my life has been largely wasted and I still have panic attacks and nightmares….

    Why has it taken so long for people to realize that this is not the way to treat children? this is not the way to create a successful society. and why am I still not getting the help that I need in order to be able to function? If, at this late date, it is still even possible for me to learn how to function. or maybe I should just give up and get it over with… I’ve certainly thought about it often enough.


  2. None of this is new to the social work and psychology fields, but it takes MONEY to practice like this. More often that not, judges do not think that the social workers/case managers that are managing these cases in court do not have the educational background or intellect to discuss these issues in court or don’t bother to read the court reports fully. Don’t even get me started on the communities that do not want their tax money going to services to support the work that needs to be done to support the people with complex trauma.


  3. Pingback: San Diego Youth Services embraces a trauma-informed approach; kids do better, staff stay longer, programs more effective « ACEs Too High

  4. Pingback: Most Californians have experienced childhood trauma; early adversity a direct link to adult onset of chronic disease, depression, violence « ACEs Too High

  5. EXCELLENT! Keep up the good work – now if we could only hold DHS – and the other judges who refuse to listen, financially responsible – when brain scans show PTSD damage from being left in trauma


  6. Now that we have this knowledge, we truly have an obligation to work towards becoming a ‘trauma-informed’ community no matter where we live. We, in Western New York, view this as a healthcare crisis and the supporting data is irrefutable. If these objectives are implemented wisely and strategically, this will finally raise mental healthcare to the equal level of physical healthcare. We think this information is a natural fit with the new healthcare model(s) being constructed across our nation. We have been given the tools to finally transform the way we raise our children, provide human services, and interact and deliver support across our entire society. Please accept a sincere and heartfelt ‘thanks’ to all that are part of this – from the inception of the ACE’s study to these emerging trauma-informed court systems. We feel a deep sense of commitment and obligation to assure our children and future families that their lives will be different now that this wealth of knowledge is validated.


  7. This is everything I stand for and mean, when I say ‘Not-rocket-science’. It’s great that this judge finally ‘got it’ and hopefully it will not take ANYONE another 37 years on the bench-clinic-class-surgery-camp-prison-hospital to realize that. Afterall, the ACE Study is nearly 20 years old. And Prisoners of Childhood (The Drama…) thirty-FIVE years old !


  8. This is everything I stand for and mean, when I say It’s great that this judge finally ‘got it’ and hopefully it will not take ANYONE another 37 years on the bench-clinic-class-surgery-camp-prison-hospital to realize that. Afterall, the ACE Study is nearly 20 years old. And Prisoners of Childhood (The Drama…) thirty-FIVE years old !


  9. Pingback: Trauma-informed judges take gentler approach, administer problem-solving justice to stop cycle of ACEs « ACEs Too High | Psychosis Links

  10. Pingback: A Kinder Gentler Courtroom with Trauma Informed Judges | American Mothers of Lost Children

  11. This is such good news. I’d like to add lead poisoning to this discussion. A child or teen caught in the system should be informed if they had been exposed to too much lead as a young child becuase it could be influencing their current behavior. This can go a long way in undestanding why they are where they are and it can change the way they think about themselves, not as a bad kid, but a kid who was poisoned by lead and that experience now intereferes with his ability to make good judgements.


  12. Pingback: Trauma-informed judges take gentler approach, administer problem-solving justice to stop cycle of ACEs « Colorado EAPA

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