Photo of people in a classroom viewing a presentation. Screen reads "Form diverse training teams"
Mary Aline Fertin JD/LLM ’23, Catherine Gorey ’25, members of the Bass Connections research team, and Amelia Ashton Thorn ’10, the co-team leader, spoke about their work at the October meeting of the N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice’s Task Force on ACEs-Informed Courts, held at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

Bolch Judicial Institute to offer trauma-informed courts curriculum to N.C. judges

The Bolch Judicial Institute is moving forward with plans to expand its trauma-informed courts curriculum by offering it to newly elected and appointed judges in the state, beginning next summer.

The institute’s trauma education program aims to educate judges about the impacts of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and offer tools to help them translate that knowledge into practices that better serve people who are involved in the justice system. By developing educational programs for judges and conducting research measuring the effects of trauma-informed courtroom practices, the institute hopes to support courts in achieving the goals of the North Carolina Chief Justice’s Task Force on ACEs-Informed Courts and to improve courtroom experiences for North Carolina citizens.

The institute offered a pilot course, developed by Assistant Director Amelia Ashton Thorn ’10, to a small group of district judges and court administrators in 2021. The N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts’ (NCAOC) education committee later approved a provisional plan for the institute to offer an educational program on the effects of trauma to all new judges beginning this year. A full day of programming — on the brain science of trauma, statewide cross-sector efforts to increase  trauma-informed practices, and practical tips on how to create more trauma-informed courtrooms — will become part of the curriculum for new judges orientation, beginning with the N.C. District Court Judges’ annual conference.

“The Chief Justice’s Task Force seeks to set the national standard on how to educate the entire judicial system, and the public, on trauma-informed practices,” said NCAOC Training and Services Director Mike Silver.

Understanding the impact of trauma

The economic and social costs of ACEs have been researched since the 1990s, beginning with a groundbreaking CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study, which found an association between traumatic experiences and poor health care outcomes. Trauma changes the brain, increasing activity in the amygdala, which controls the fight or flight response, while suppressing development of the pre-frontal cortex, which governs impulse control and future planning. These changes leave traumatized people susceptible to risky and aggressive behavior: Up to 90% of juvenile offenders and 75% of adult offenders in the U.S. report at least one traumatic event early in life. Research has similarly shown that  exposure to trauma makes people more likely to enter the court system, and failure to effectively address trauma makes it harder to exit.

Despite recent efforts to implement trauma-informed practices in the judicial context, research has focused on the impact of trauma-focused therapies for individuals involved in the justice system, showing effects such as a reduction in violent behavior. However, the extent to which positive impacts may arise from courtroom-based practices is not yet known.

Up to 90% of juvenile offenders and 75% of adult offenders in the U.S. report at least one traumatic event early in life.

During the 2021 pilot course, which was held virtually, participants heard presentations on three topics: the science of trauma; the trauma movement in North Carolina; and applying trauma skills from the bench. Presenters included judges and trauma experts. Immediately following the pilot, Eva McKinsey, then a doctoral candidate in North Carolina State University’s Applied Social and Community Psychology Program, led a feedback session to hear judges’ reactions to the training. She and Thorn also conducted in-depth follow-up interviews three months later with participating judges to assess the impact of the training. With help from a team of N.C. State undergraduate students, McKinsey analyzed both sets of feedback to glean 11 essential recommendations for future trauma education programs. The results of their analysis were published in the November 2022 issue of Judicature.

Photo of three women
L–R: Catherine Gorey ’25, Mary Aline Fertin JD/LLM ’23, and Amelia Ashton Thorn ’10, following their presentation to the N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice’s Task Force on ACEs-Informed Courts

Measuring impact

In addition to providing feedback to improve the training sessions, the judges also pointed toward the need for new research.

“Following the pilot training program, it became clear that the judges are looking for evidence that trauma education and restructuring their courtroom to align with trauma-informed principles actually works,” McKinsey said. “Currently, there is almost no scholarship looking at this specific question: What are the impacts of trauma-informed practices in the courtroom?”

That question prompted McKinsey and Thorn to apply for a Duke University Bass Connections research grant. Throughout the current academic year, a project team of undergraduate and graduate students are collecting data for a novel empirical study on the real-world impacts of trauma-informed courtroom-based practices.

“We were thrilled to have so many outstanding members of the Duke student community — undergrads, graduate students, and professors alike — join this groundbreaking research team,” Thorn said. “We are eager to find empirical answers to judges’ questions about how to effectively interact with the citizens who pass through the courthouse doors — questions that go to the heart of our mission at Bolch, which is to promote rule of law principles through scholarship.”

Bench card offers information on trauma, tools, at a glance

Another milestone of the Chief Justice’s ACEs Task Force has been the creation and distribution of an ACEs-Informed Courts Bench Card to all North Carolina prosecutors and judges. The trauma education subcommittee of the Task Force, led by Thorn, created the bench card with input from trauma education leaders, including the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (co-led by Duke) and judges who shared their own trauma-informed practices. The bench card delivers an abbreviated version of the trauma-informed courts curriculum, along with simple, cost-free recommendations for how judges can make their courts more trauma-responsive. For example, the card includes advice on docket scheduling, de-escalation, transparency, and communication, as well as some recommendations tailored specifically to interacting with children in the courtroom.

“The bench card was truly a team effort between Task Force leaders, academics, doctors, and judges,” Thorn said. “It reflects some of the current best practices in trauma-informed judging. We hope it will serve as a helpful resource that judges can keep on hand in court — ultimately benefitting court-users and judges alike.”

An eye to the future

The institute’s trauma-informed courts initiative is funded in part through a gift from the HopeStar Foundation (formerly the Winer Family Foundation), a Charlotte-based nonprofit that supports initiatives focused on the health and development of children and families. Elizabeth H. Star, founder and president of the foundation, said that the program supports its mission to improve the health and well-being of families in North Carolina while also developing a national model for other states to expand upon. The institute often fields requests from other states for input into their own court trainings and curricula.

“The Bolch Judicial Institute is becoming a leader in this area,” Star said. “Once we finish this embedding of the trauma-informed courts program, this will be a national model. Then, in partnership with the institute, the HopeStar Foundation wants to expand this program nationwide. We want to take it to other states, so that their court leadership and chief justices can leverage this research and expand the curriculum within their individual states.” — Reprinted from Judicature

The Bolch Judicial Institute is grateful for the continued partnership and support to the trauma initiative from the HopeStar Foundation, the Kellen Foundation, Stanley A. Star ’61 and Elizabeth Star, Peter Kahn ’76 of Williams & Connolly, John “Buddy” Wester ’72 of Robinson Bradshaw, and Russell Robinson ’56, BA ’54 and Sally Robinson BA ’55.

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Spring 2023
Volume 42 No. 1