What We Know, and What the Court System Is Learning

Mary Triggiano, the presiding judge of Milwaukee County Children’s Court opened a three-day conference last week on moving toward a trauma-informed child welfare and court system by saying:

Linda Steiner
Linda Steiner

“Trauma informed care is not a natural fit for judges, but the justice system needs to know about this science. We can’t continue to do business as usual; it’s simply not working in our system.”

Judge Triggiano went on to say that with more knowledge about trauma and its effects on the brain and behavior, judges could better tailor their decisions. She concluded by saying that, hopefully, when people from all walks of life come together, as more than 500 individuals from around the state did at the conference, they would leave knowing too much to return to business as usual.

What struck me throughout the conference, organized by the Children’s Court Improvement Program, with speakers that included judges, survivors of trauma, educators and experts of all types on trauma, was how SaintA was so out in front on so much of what was shared through the creation several years ago of its Seven Essential Ingredients of understanding and implementing trauma informed care. When I started at SaintA in 2009, this was beginning to be used in our agency. It was not, as Judge Triggiano said, a natural fit for me, being new to working in a human services agency. Now, all departments – from food services to child welfare –are becoming certified to ensure a clear understanding of what trauma informed care is and how it can and should be used in virtually everything we do. I have come to believe that everyone in society needs to have this knowledge, to help create a healthier populace.

I was proud to hear our own Tim Gove, chief clinical officer, speaking to the conference attendees about the things everyone at SaintA is trained on, and to know he has trained so many others, including judges in Milwaukee County. SaintA overall has trained more than 20,000 individuals from many walks of life. It just made sense to me, on so many levels, that our ingredients truly capture the necessary elements of understanding trauma and how to help individuals who have experienced it.

Speaker after speaker, including trauma-informed guru Dr. Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D, talked about the prevalence of trauma in society, about the adverse childhood experiences (ACE) studies in California and Wisconsin, about how trauma impacts the development of the brain and how so many of us have residual effects of trauma of some sort.

The very first speaker, Tonier Cain, told a dramatic story about suffering severe abuse and neglect as a child, turning to alcohol at age 9, and growing up to be a crack addict who lived on the streets for 20 years. She was arrested 83 times, with 63 convictions. Over and over she asked how different things would have been if only someone – from elementary school teachers to court personnel, would have asked her, “What happened to you?” instead of assuming she was simply bad, a throwaway person. Perspective shift, indeed.

What finally turned her around was, after having several children taken from her at birth and suffering much additional abuse at the hands of people in various parts of the justice system –- including a therapist who raped her — someone listened to her, believed she had potential, and helped her get into a program that would allow her to keep her newborn daughter. Relationship. And motherhood became her reason to be. She turned her life around and now is an internationally known speaker through the National Center for Trauma Informed care.

As we all are taught at SaintA, regulation is vital to calming a brain that has experienced trauma and is in the throes of disregulation. Dr. Perry explained in detail how the part of the brain that is responsible for cognition cannot even be accessed in these situations. And several other speakers talked about how those who interact with children and adults who have experienced trauma can help with regulation, from making sure a courthouse door is adjusted so as not to slam, sounding somewhat like a gunshot, to knowing how rocking can soothe a child.

Dr. Shawn Marsh, chief program officer for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, spoke about how everyone who works in a courthouse must be trained, in a uniform manner, on trauma and its effects to eliminate trauma reminders and to strengthen staff. Creating a shared definition of trauma sets the stage for open communication, he said: precisely what we did at SaintA seven years ago.

Dr. Marsh also said there is lots of burnout in court staff, high turnover and not enough training, particularly to ensure self-care, which he said was critically important in dealing with traumatized people. An entire session was dedicated to what we at SaintA call caregiver capacity. Dr. James Henry of the Southwest Michigan Children’s Trauma Assessment Center spoke of the insidious nature of secondary traumatic stress: “If you’re open to being a human being, you’ll be affected; you’ll feel a child’s hurt.” Although nothing about combating secondary stress is simple, simply allowing staff to share their feelings and communicate their underlying sadness and grief is extremely important, he said. And combating negativity with thinking positive can help change the wiring of the brain.

Since I started at SaintA, I have heard many, many reminders about caregiver capacity, making sure you are in a calm state so as to better serve those in our care, etc. We even had an entire all-agency meeting on the topic. I believe our administrators truly embrace the importance of this concept and try not to let staff forget it.

As an additional add-on, the conference included a session on historical trauma. Our all-agency meeting this year focused on that concept, and it is reinforced in many ways.

Now, I am paid to promote our agency. But I consider myself, if nothing else, an extremely honest person (sometimes to a fault). And I was never so proud of this place and the work we do than I was at this conference. I have learned of the extreme complexity of working with people with trauma, and I know that at SaintA, we got that message very early, and we continue to stress it, in ever new and creative ways.

I would encourage anyone who is interested in learning more about trauma and what to do about it to attend one of our trainings. Become one of the more than 20,000 individuals we have trained and learn what is necessary to help create a better informed and more caring society.

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