By John McGauley | Court Executive, Allen Superior Court
Few things speak to the desire to do a great job more than a willingness to accept criticism. Nothing speaks to that desire quite like actively seeking it out.
In February, Allen Superior Court’s Family Relations Division did exactly that, inviting the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges behind the scenes to review its operations, make suggestions, and offer criticisms that will permit the Court to better serve children and families.
Referred to as a “trauma audit,” the February 20 and 21 review dissected every aspect of court operations, from how visitors are greeted at the front desk all the way through the courtroom experience. Ten focus groups gave all variety of court users, from foster parents and CASA volunteers to court staff and service agencies, an opportunity to offer their take on how best to serve the community.
“Families coming into court have multiple exposures to trauma,” said Allen Superior Court Judge Charles Pratt. “If we’re serious about treating them, the court needs to understand how its operation might complicate or appropriately address those issues. To become trauma informed and better meet the needs of our community, we need to know what we’re doing right – and where we can improve.”
Families, and especially children, enter the family court system suffering from the after-effects of a variety of negative experiences. Of particular concern is mitigating the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), which can result in a wide range of health problems later in life.
ACES include directly witnessing or otherwise experiencing events including physical, psychological and sexual abuse, death, domestic violence, and divorce. As the trauma of such experiences multiplies over the course of years, emotional, behavioral, and physical harm often result.
But there is also a valuable safety component behind the trauma audit. Court staff who are trauma informed can avoid actions that trigger people or inflame emotional fragility.
Judge Pratt, who serves as Administrative Judge for Allen Superior Court’s Family Division, said this was the first trauma audit of an Indiana court. Professional consultants were provided by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges – at no cost to the court – to perform a survey and give a report on how Allen Superior Court can better serve those who require the court’s services. He said that the results of the audit should be available in Spring of 2019.
The idea for the Allen County trauma audit began in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Allen Superior Court staff visited there in 2018 to observe the Alleghany County Common Pleas Court of Judge Dwayne Woodruff. Judge Woodruff, who presides mainly over family court matters, engaged his court in a trauma audit that resulted in new ways of caring for small children during court proceedings.
Judge Pratt said: “What I really want to know is how well do we address the anxiety and trauma of people who come to the court? Meeting their needs better and establishing a level of trust will help us mitigate that experience. If we can be trauma informed, we can be more sensitive and deliver service in a way that meets those needs.”
Allen Superior Court has made promoting awareness of trauma-informed care a priority. The Great Kids Make Great Communities Leadership Academy conducted the first training on complex trauma and its impacts on the development of youth. It also recently announced the launch of a Family Recovery Court for families in CHINS matters involving substance abuse.
As the first court in Indiana to undergo a trauma audit, it is hoped the Allen Superior Court’s example will show others the benefits of such an exercise. Judge Pratt said that another benefit will be the development of self-assessment tools that other Indiana courts can utilize.
“It’s hard for someone who hasn’t experienced trauma to know on their own how to navigate these situations,” Judge Pratt said. “Ultimately, we want people to get help. But if we do things in a way that’s not informed, they might not. This is really about building trust and understanding.”
For additional information on the Allen Superior Court Trauma Audit, contact John McGauley at (260) 449-7587 or email@example.com.