OP-ED: Justice foiled by ignorance of trauma

By Judge George Timberlake, Ret, JJIE.org

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At the supermarket last week, I saw a young woman who looked familiar, but I could not recall her name. I said “Hello” and continued looking for kale, quinoa and 15-grain bread — staples at my house since we are eating healthy.

Two aisles over, I saw her again. She was thin, almost gaunt, dressed in worn clothes that didn’t fit, but I now recognized her from an appearance years ago in my juvenile courtroom. Let’s call her Kera.

Kera recognized me, too. I tried to start a conversation. She mumbled a short response and hurried out of the store without making a purchase.

In the parking lot, I sat in my pickup for several minutes thinking about this woman who had the outward appearance of a meth addict. I wondered how she came to be the person I just saw and what I might have done differently to improve her outcome.

My thoughts turned to remarks delivered by Abigail Baird, a developmental neuroscientist studying brain development and decision-making by teenagers. She was addressing a symposium sponsored by the National Center for State Courts and the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative.

A few days later, I was in the audience for a presentation by Anne Studzinski, managing director of the Illinois Childhood Trauma Coalition. Both experts referred to the effects of trauma on the intersecting development of the individual. These two discussions had a link that stirred up my own memories of Kera’s visits to my courtroom.

Baird described the dual development of different brain regions for emotions and thoughts and how they influence each other.

Studzinski asked the audience to think back to their earliest memories. Most reported that the memory was from ages 4 to 6 and involved a “first” time — the first day of school, a first funeral, a first trip to the emergency room or first wedding. She said those are “recallable” memories but pointed out that brain activity begins in the womb and precognition does not mean that the world around a child goes unnoticed.

Emotional responses to external events create emotional memory and when those events are positive — like hearing your grandmother’s voice singing a lullaby — the sensations cause you to feel the warmth of those moments without being able to verbalize when or where she was.

Hearing that old lullaby again can create a warm feeling. On the other hand, witnessing or experiencing a violent event also has an effect. Baird described how the fight or flight response becomes associated with painful events in a child’s past. Later, the negative behaviors that society labels disruptive, disrespectful or criminal in a social setting may be traced to a response to a forgotten trauma.

Kera was first in a courtroom at age 9 when a petition alleging sexual abuse was filed against her mother and paramour-perpetrator that alleged sexual penetration at age 4. Mom refused to leave her boyfriend, and Kera became a ward of the state child welfare agency. She didn’t like that, and she bit, screamed, cried and threw tantrums. At the age 13, she ran away from her foster home. She was found, returned and placed in another foster home — only to run away again and again.

As she approached age 15, Kera was placed in a group facility where she discovered drugs from other residents, ran away and learned that sex is a saleable commodity almost anywhere. When that wasn’t enough, she and a friend burglarized a house. Sadly, the elderly resident was inside the home and was brutally beaten by Kera’s friend before they fled with about $500 and a .44. They were caught before they used the gun or spent the money.

After a long period in detention awaiting trial, Kera was convicted. At sentencing, her caseworker described her as a girl who was always “out of control” and “needing consequences for her behavior.” Even with therapy, the caseworker often found her running or scheming to run away to her “worthless” mother. In prison, she was placed in segregation at least once per month. In court review hearings, she was shackled, in leg chains and a belly belt to prevent her outbursts and attempts to run.

I can attempt to salve my conscience because I did not know about brain development or trauma-informed practice. But it doesn’t work — acknowledging my ignorance and failures of the justice system cannot repair the harm done.

Our court systems, both child welfare and juvenile delinquency, must learn what science can teach us and use that knowledge every day in every case, no matter what the circumstances. That will be justice.

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., is chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission and an alternate member of the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before his retirement as chief judge of Illinois’ 2nd Circuit. He is also a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the statewide Juvenile Justice Initiative.

17 responses

  1. Pingback: OP-ED: Justice foiled by ignorance of trauma | Family and Children's Place

  2. I am the ACES parent representative in my community of Walla walla,Washington. I have shared my personal story of all 10 ACES. 61 times already. I think every time I share if I only help 1person then I’m doing my job. If you need me to share please feel free to contact me through my email.

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  3. Sadly our court systems are expected to solve the problems of a sick society and people that should not have children. This is a seperate issue from deciding custody in a divorce or separation of 2 parents. When a judge is presented with an innocent child and has to make a decision between placing the child if foster care or sending the child home with a drug addicted unfit parent, there is no “right” decision! Our court systems, social services, schools and hospitals are overwhelmed with children for whom there is no safe, loving, or right decision. In too many cases we may as well be flipping a coin. We can not continue to expect our government to perform miracles to fix the problems created by “parents” who use drugs, do not work and live chaotic sick lifestyles and yet bring innocent children into the situation. It is unfair and uneducated to lump these children into the same group as children of loving parents who are in the midst of messy divorces. Judges and the unlicensed need to realize this.

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      • Thank you, [Safe Babies Courts] is an interesting article and as it states [1% of courts]. A CPS Report [dealing with 570 child fatalities in 18 months-in one County] found their #1 problem is [Child Protective Service/DCFS employees] do not care about children. I am happy to announce-a new policy [recently in place] [fires or criminally charges] [those-uncaring] CPS employees when children die from abuse-under their scrutiny.

        After reading this article, I credit the Safe Babies Courts-attempting to [either care-or actually doing their job to protect children]. It’s sad though when [budgets] trump protecting babies. CARING for children is a solution-overlooked and never mentioned.

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  4. Pingback: OP-ED: Justice Foiled by Ignorance of Trauma • SJS

  5. Good, Judge George Timberlake, Ret, that you should acknowledge a catastrophe which you participated in promulgating. That is responsible.

    When the state takes a child, they submit not only the child, but very often the parent, to intense trauma. The notion that taking children solves (most) problems is like cutting off an arm to cure a sprained thumb—the cure is worse than the ill.

    We must end state sponsored child abduction. Great harm is done, therefrom. Profound principles are violated—including the principle of consent, of “first do no harm,” of following a constitutional model of freedom from gov’t intrusion. It is no wonder that the vast majority of these cases have extensively deleterious—if not catastrophic—outcomes. Twenty wrongs don’t make a right.

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    • Thank you Mr. Stasek… it is assumed in the press that ALL children seized by so called “Child Protective Services” were abused and neglected by their parents. That assumption is wrong in 80 percent of the cases of children in state hands do not belong in the system.

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    • I agree [we must end state sponsored child abduction]. Except for reunification to [mentally ill, drug addicted, abusive parent[s], like in Vyctorya Sandoval’s case:

      Vyctorya Sandoval’s minor’s attorney [Robert Vasquez] stated [“the history of the abusive family does not matter-the goal is to reunify”]. Vyctorya [age 17 months] had no voice in judge Makel’s courtroom-and was court ordered to death-by [“reunification”]. Vyctorya Sandoval was only [one] of 570 child fatalities in 18 months in Los Angeles County.

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    • Regarding [following a constitutional model of freedom from gov’t intrusion] here is the other side of that coin: Based on the U.S.Supreme Court DeShaney case law, a father beat and permanently severely injured his son.

      Our appeal reads: Based on the U.S.Constitution, the U.S.Supreme Court explained: [Nothing in the language of the U.S.Constitution itself require the State to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors [i.e. parents]. The U.S.Constitution’s purpose is to protect the people from the State, not to ensure that the State protect them from each other, [i.e.] [children do not have a right to be protected from abuse by an abusive parent].

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  6. Question: Were there no other safe alternatives than to place this girl into one of most harmful systems in the United States…with foster care providers who continued to ramp up the abuse against her? Were there no safe grandparents, a safe parent, family members or friend who knew this little girl, loved her and would take her in and raise her? …As court watchers we have seen “Detention Reports” that state under penalty of perjury that social workers sought placement with family, but never did. We have seen family members especially grandparents, rise to occasion to love, protect and raise their grandchildren as their own, and have witnessed with our own eyes countless times, lying social workers demonize blood family, smear them to the court and deny them access to children who were swallowed up and destroyed in the foster care and fast track adoption system… Stand up People, speak up and fight… “Child Protective Services” the dependency and family law courts they have subverted all across this country, are destroying our future… one child at a time.

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  7. Congrats on your realization judge. Now it’s time for you to start letting people out of prison who are incarcerated for non-violent crimes and crimes where there is no actual victim.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many of those incarcerated people were first held in the failed foster care system like the subject of the story above…. This is what is called Cradle to Grave Incarceration of American children. It is a very big business on the backs of American children and their families.

      It has to stop… I was in a Board of Supervisors Meeting in Los Angeles last year in which the Department of Mental Health, The Department of Child and Family Services and the Probation Department asked for…and were granted, a very rich contract to join together and share… TAXPAYERS must wake up to this… we are losing generations of our children to this harmful machine that only feeds low functioning bureaucrats and jailers… not children.

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