Trauma-Informed Legal Representation of Children and Youth: Identifying and Responding to Our Clients Victimization Histories

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1 Trauma-Informed Legal Representation of Children and Youth: Identifying and Responding to Our Clients Victimization Histories Howard Davidson, J.D., Director, ABA Center on Children and the Law I d like to set the stage for an important new effort in improving legal representation of children by stating why we need to now have, throughout the country, traumainformed legal representation of children and youth in the juvenile and family court system. It is, in my view, critical that all of us involved in child representation programs begin to look into how court-appointed advocates can better identify and respond to their clients victimization histories. Back in the mid-1970 s, I directed a Children s Law Project at Greater Boston Legal Services where I was in court representing kids in delinquency, status offender, and child maltreatment cases 3 to 5 days a week. My Center s practice involved some of the first cross-over youth representation, as our clients often were involved in multiple types of juvenile proceedings. It was not unusual to be advocating for a child in a delinquency case who had a long runaway history, preceded by involvement in the state s child protection system. Back then, we didn t know enough to understand the connections between our clients multiple system involvement, nor did we ever ask questions about their traumatic experiences over the years that may have been relevant to what the court, and children s service agencies, might do to better help them. When a girl I represented at age 15, arrested multiple times for prostitution, was shot walking out of a McDonalds, and I saw her unconscious lying in a hospital bed, it then had to be only the latest in a long series of personal tragedies for my frail client. Why hadn t the system identified her long history of victimization and trauma, and done

2 something about it, before she lay in a hospital bed recovering from a gunshot wound? Likewise, another girl runaway client ended up hospitalized after setting fire to her legs (something I only much later learned was common in victims of sexual abuse). I know now that I failed to learn all I should have about the victimization that she, and my other clients, experienced over many years. And, I believe it wasn t just me who was blind to these histories. The judges, social workers, probation officers, and others who tried to help my clients didn t possess information on the impact of trauma on child development, or the knowledge that youth who came before them were, because of long victimization histories, at high risk for lasting physical, mental, or emotional impairments. At the Center on Children and the Law we ve done 14 bi-annual national conferences on children and the law, but only a few times, and only in recent years, have we addressed the underlying harm of multiple forms of victimization experienced by children that lawyers, guardians ad litem, and court-appointed special advocates represent, Many of us are now more aware of the impact of abuse and neglect on a child s brain development, and we know far more today about how severe traumacaused stress in childhood affects the long term health of both young people and adults. I recently learned of two scholarly works on these issues. The first is the recent publication of the book The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease. It explores the impact of turbulent emotional trauma on the early developing brain, even when that trauma occurred during the mother s pregnancy, and how the trauma is so much more significant when it happens to babies or young children. It describes how children exposed to early chronic trauma are much more susceptible to later adverse reactivity

3 to stressful events. It explores how this affects our child clients attachment problems and inability to self-regulate their emotional responses. The book also describes the Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACE study of 58,000 Kaiser Permanente patients, a study that every child advocate should understand in terms of how bad experiences in children s lives correlate with their later serous health and mental health issues. I also recently read an article reporting on a recent Boston-area brain imaging study by Harvard researchers of 193 ethnically diverse, middle class, unmedicated, and well educated individuals between 18 and 25. Its findings, from the largest study yet to use brain scans to show the effects of child abuse, support the hypothesis that exposure to early stress in humans, as in other animals, has ill affects on an important part of the brain known as the hippocampus, and that this is particularly related to childhood abuse and neglect. That type of brain impact has been associated with an earlier onset of major depression, PTSD, antisocial and borderline personality disorder, and schizophrenia, We have known for several decades thanks to Cathy Spatz Widom s research on the cycle of violence that children who experience abuse or neglect are far more likely to later to have serious behavioral problems and to engage in criminal behavior. Since the 1980 s we have had specialized approaches to sensitively address the unique needs of young children victimized by sexual abuse who become involved as witnesses in the criminal justice system. Training for lawyers, guardians ad litem, and CASAs has increasingly included a focus on child development issues and such concerns as attachment disorders and the impact of family separation and loss. We ve also learned

4 how to become astute forensic interviewers and to use child-appropriate language in our questions. But we have yet, in my opinion, to adequately inform the thousands of advocates appointed each year by judges -- as special legal protectors of children in court -- on the fundamental issue of what the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention of the U.S. Department of Justice (OJJDP) has labeled polyvictimization. How can we do an adequate job of representing children if we don t know what violence they ve experienced in their homes, schools, and communities? Thanks to the OJJDP-supported National Survey of Children s Exposure to Violence, we know from children s histories that nearly two-thirds reported more than one type of victimization, and more than one in ten reported 5 or more direct exposures to different types of violence. I believe those percentages would likely be higher if only courtinvolved children had been surveyed. One of the things that gave rise to my suggestion that the OJJDP-funded Safe Start Initiative take on a project to improve trauma-related legal advocacy was a part of an October 2011 OJJDP report on polyvictimization research that, in its recommendations, called for assessing children on a broader range of areas of victimization, once we identify that they have suffered ANY particular form of victimization, and that professionals who work with children in systems intervening in their lives need to be sure that they are eliciting polyvictims total histories. Court-appointed advocates for children are in a good position to help assure that their polyvictim clients receive timely and multifaceted interventions.

5 These interventions should be focused on: 1) preventing further victimization and trauma; 2) treating the underlying child and family vulnerabilities 3) broadening what child protective and child welfare services agencies should be providing to these children; and 4) advocacy for building the supervision and protective capabilities of those adults who are, or will be, caring for them. So, how can we better assure we make good use of the opportunity to address the well-being of polyvictim children? I believe we should use the special window of opportunity presented when a child or youth is before the court and represented by legal counsel or other advocates. First and foremost, we need a structure to help assure the thorough identification of clients past exposure to violence and trauma. There must be some routine method of learning about their histories of being physically or sexually assaulted, of being bullied, of experiencing emotional maltreatment, of witnessing violence in their homes or communities. I conceive of this new attorney, GAL, and CASA effort as something that will helpfully supplement the overall effort launched in 2010 by Attorney General Holder, called Defending Childhood, in which the Department of Justice has been supporting a comprehensive effort to address the exposure of American children to crime, both as victims and witnesses. Every child advocacy legal training should now be including a section on recognizing and responding to traumatized children, regardless of what part of the

6 juvenile court they re involved in. I commend the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges for being out in front on this. Eight years ago its Juvenile and Family Court Journal published a special issue on child trauma. More recently, in association with the National Child Traumatic Stress Network it published Ten Things Every Juvenile Court Judge Should Know About Trauma and Delinquency. And the Council has recently held a webinar, The Truth About Trauma and Delinquency that provided a basic understanding of just what a traumatic event is and how traumatic events can have a long-term impact on not only those who directly experience trauma, but also on their families and communities. So now is the time for attorneys and CASAs to act on this issue. Both our Center and National CASA have produced materials on the link between child maltreatment and domestic violence, focusing on the impact of domestic violence on children. Along with such key groups as the National Association of Counsel for Children and the National Juvenile Defender Center, we need to step back and look at childhood victimization more broadly how to identify and address it even if it appears unrelated to the incident that brought the child client before the court. Thanks to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, the Safe Start Center, and others there is terrific material out there on trauma-informed practice in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. I am so pleased that through the efforts of Lisa Pilnik, Jessie Kendall, and others a potential screening tool for use in legal advocacy for children and youth is being developed, something that I hope will make advocacy more trauma-informed. We need to be creative and think outside the box about what victimization history should be obtained, and how. Here s one example of that: I ve not

7 found any of the screening or assessment instruments referred to in Lisa and Jessica s original background paper on this topic, or anything specifically written for legal advocates, that raises the importance of obtaining information about a child s past witnessing of animal cruelty in their home, something we know can be very traumatic. And juvenile courts themselves have a long way to go in identifying and addressing child victimization among those who appear as subjects of dependency and delinquency proceedings. Even though Jessie and Lisa s paper mentioned a court survey finding that judges do hear about past traumatic events in the lives of children before the court, in more than 75% of their cases, a survey taken during a Defending Childhood Initiative webinar found that 60% of those responding to an in-call poll rated the court response to children exposed to violence as low or very low. To help change those perceptions, I believe it is critical to make the child or youth s court appointed advocate better aware of their client s victimization and trauma history -- and most importantly how they can effectively advocate for services their clients need to address the adverse consequences of that history. We must help lawyers, lay GAL, and CASAs be more familiar with programs, like these 18, that have been proven to effectively respond to child victimization and trauma. Admittedly, there are complex questions about how legal system advocates can become better informed about their clients trauma histories, and communicate that information appropriately. For example, is the best approach some form of universal case intake instrument that gathers information from multiple sources? When such information is gathered, how can and should the attorney, GAL, or CASA make use of that information? What are the ethical issues involved in sharing this information?

8 A few months ago I watched a documentary, The Interrupters, about violence prevention work in Chicago. Court-appointed advocates have the opportunity to become Interrupters in our child welfare and juvenile cases, effectively educating the juvenile defense bar, the child protection attorney/gal bar, and thousands of CASA volunteers across the country on issues related to child client polyvictimization, how to identify it, and what to do about it.

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