June 3, 2019

From Shary Mason, JCIP Model Court and Training Analyst, Juvenile Court Programs Division, Oregon Judicial Department

The picture above shows a courtroom in the Jefferson County Courthouse. It’s a “trauma designed courthouse.”

Being involved in the justice system is typically overwhelming and uncomfortable, but it does not have to be harmful. Check out how these judges and other justice system providers create safer spaces.

Going to court is a stressful event for most people. It is often more so for individuals who have trauma history or whose lives are in upheaval. Toxins released in the brain, when exposed to a traumatic situation, can create misbehavior or volatility. Courts must understand and respond in ways that help people feel safe. Several Oregon courts are adopting practice aligned with trauma informed care (TIC). Clear, large signage directing people where to go; letting participants know where to sit and what to expect; providing access to water; and limiting sensory distractions are examples of calming influences. Below are some other examples of the Oregon court system’s use of trauma-informed principles.

Building Design

Judge Douglas Van Dyk, Clackamas County, reports efforts to incorporate principles of trauma informed care into the design of a new courthouse. Debbie Spradley, Clackamas County Trial Court Administrator (TCA), said they worked with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) during the planning phase to develop a New Court Facility Needs Assessment. Once they have funding, Clackamas County will be putting out a request for proposal for an architect, and they plan to incorporate trauma-informed design into their new courthouse. Debbie said that individuals deal with a variety of traumatic experiences leading up to their arrival at court. Design solutions such as exposure to natural light, windows looking out at nature, wide corridors, earth tones, and glazed doors to enclosed spaces, as well as clear signage, can lessen the trauma a person feels when they enter and navigate a courthouse. She cited an article entitled Trauma-Informed Courthouse Design, in the Spring 2018 issue of the NACM Court Manager in which Jefferson County Courthouse (pictured above) was featured as an example. The courthouse has lots of windows and large, open public spaces.

Human Element

Referee Heidi Strauch, Marion County, doesn’t see that she has much control over the physical structure of her courtroom, so she focuses on the human element when interacting with parents and youth. “I focus on relaxing my body language, dropping the tone (deeper sound), slowing down the pace a bit, looking the person in the eye in a receptive way, actively listening if and when they speak, acknowledging what they have said, acknowledging the positives of what they are doing, acknowledging their struggles and barriers, and giving encouragement.”

Safety

Judge Lindsay Partridge, Marion County, says his courthouse does things like have separate hearings when there is an offender parent and a victim parent. They may also have one parent on the phone and the other in person. For children, they often use the jury room for them to wait in, if they are testifying. They encourage attorneys who are going to call a child victim to testify to bring them to the courtroom prior to the trial. He says, “Essentially, we try to make the court environment as least intimidating as possible.”

Judge Heather Karabeika, Clackamas County, says the bottom line is that “courtrooms and courthouses are not trauma-informed locations,” but she does what she can to make the setting safe and non-threatening. In DV [domestic violence] matters, she separates the parties, asks for extra courtroom security if warranted, and asks a victim advocate to meet or be there when a victim appears to need extra help. Deputies in the courthouse make sure there are no safety or security issues and that victims can safely enter and depart the courtroom/courthouse.

In juvenile dependency matters where the child/children are present, they often want to sit near a parent and hold their hand to show support/love for their parent. Sometimes the kid/kids are angry and want to say things to their parents about their lack of progress that would allow them to go home. Sometimes they just want to know what the grownups are saying about them. Judge Karabeika tries to let them have a voice and shows them that the court is not a scary place. If someone is clearly suffering, she tries to take frequent breaks, allow check-ins with support personnel, and remains calm if/when someone acts out.

Judge Karabeika has had jury trials where the charges themselves (frequently child sexual abuse or domestic violence) generate a lot of anguish and pain for jurors and she will excuse potential jurors the minute she sees they’re suffering from having to relive something they or a close family member may have experienced.

Training

Judge Amy Holmes Hehn, Multnomah County, said their court has been involved in several trauma training-related activities. The court worked in partnership with Trauma Informed Oregon to develop a bench guide for judges. It gives tips for creating physical and emotional safety; promoting attention and reducing anxiety; being helpful; demonstrating neutrality; valuing voice; and staying engaged. How individuals feel about the justice system is tied more to the perceived fairness of the process and how they are treated in the courtroom, than on the outcome of the case itself. Participants want to feel heard; to be treated with dignity and respect; and to have the court show an interest in their situation. They also want to understand the process by which decisions are made.

Judges and court staff have had yearly training since 2015 on Trauma Basics; Trauma Intervention; the Intersection of Fear, Trauma, and Aggression; and How Being Trauma Informed Improves Criminal Justice System Responses. They now know that trauma can be stored in the body and present as a racing heart, nausea, confusion, etc. It can be hard for those appearing before the court to focus on or retain information. Judicial officers and staff may also suffer from vicarious trauma as they empathize with people’s stories or hear cases that produce anxiety and personal tension. Multnomah County has also incorporated trauma-informed principles into the design of their new courthouse, which is set to open next year. The new courthouse will have nearly 60 individual public conference rooms so that those involved in contentious matters can be separated or have quiet places to talk. The design has natural light and views of green space whenever possible to reduce anxiety for those coming to the courthouse.

Peacemaking

Christine Isaacson, Tribal Probation/Truancy Counselor for the Klamath Tribes, says the Tribe has developed a Juvenile Healing to Wellness Court to work with at-risk youth who have been dealing with substance abuse issues. The court is a Peacemaking program to help not only the youth but the family as well. She has been sent to several trauma trainings, including the following two this May: one on “Sex Trafficking,” and the other on “Survivors of Homicide.” The goal of the Klamath Tribes’ Judicial Courts is to be able to work with their tribal youth in a manner that allows them to regain their voice and their power by helping them cope with and overcome the trauma they have faced in their lives. They want their youth to become strong, healthy, and productive members of the Tribe.

Citizen Review Board

The Citizen Review Board (CRB) is part of the judicial system and reviews cases for the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) and the courts. Trauma Informed Oregon observed several CRB reviews and offered suggestions to avoid re-traumatization and promote engagement of families participating in the reviews. As a result, the CRB created a new notice to send to participants prior to the review, a new opening statement to deliver at the review, and a guide to give participants at the review. Elaine Walters delivered a keynote address, “Trauma Informed Review,” at the CRB statewide conference, and provided a Trauma-Informed Case Review Checklist. There was also a workshop at the conference that was filmed and is available online for viewing by volunteers.