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Upwards of 90% of legal system-involved youth report exposure to at least one potentially traumatic event (PTE; Abram et al., 2004), and the majority of these youth report exposure to multiple types of PTEs (i.e., community violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse; Abram et al., 2004; Dierkhising et al., 2013). Given these high rates of trauma exposure, the United States Department of Justice has recommended that the juvenile legal system implement trauma-informed care (TIC) throughout all aspects of the system (i.e., law enforcement, courts, probation departments, and detention/correctional facilities; Dierkhising et al., 2016; Report of the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, 2012). TIC is an approach that accounts for the consequences of trauma exposure in all organization functions (Branson et al., 2017); for example, one TIC practice may be to include standardized screenings for traumatic stress and subsequent referrals to evidence-based treatments. To aid juvenile legal systems in adopting a TIC approach, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) has provided guidelines aimed to promote policies throughout the legal system that promote effective care and rehabilitation for youth, available here on their website.

A broad criticism of TIC is that there is no universal definition or standard for systems to measure their TIC practices and policies. In 2017, 10 publications were reviewed for providing TIC recommendations in various aspects of the legal system (i.e., courts, detention, law enforcement; Branson et al., 2017). Across these publications, there were 71 unique recommendations for systems to be considered trauma informed (Branson et al., 2017). However, these recommendations are responsive to the unique settings (i.e., law enforcement, courts) to improve the TIC that youth receive. As such, the lack of standardization of TIC may be a strength that permits systems to create TIC practices to meet the unique needs of their staff and the youth and families they serve. For example, the specific techniques to accomplish trauma-informed training for staff may look different for law enforcement officers compared to judges and lawyers in the court system, due to differences in duties and roles. More research is needed on how to effectively implement sustainable TIC practices across various departments of the juvenile legal system, including the courts and law enforcement, to both meet the unique needs of key stakeholders and use evidence-based practices for traumatic stress.

TIC in the juvenile legal system implies that the whole system adopts practices that are responsive to trauma exposure. Given the overrepresentation of youth of color in the legal system (Loyd et al., 2019; Piquero, 2008), it would be considered irresponsible to ignore the needs of youth of color who are more likely to experience a PTE through their involvement in the legal system than non-Hispanic White youth (Loyd et al., 2019). This can be especially true for youth with undocumented parents, for whom legal system involvement can lead to fears of deportation (Cavanagh & Cauffman, 2015; United States Government Accountability Office, 2009). Further, youth of color experience inequalities at every stage of the legal system, including higher arrest rates, more severe sentencing, and reduced likelihood of receiving appropriate mental health services, which can exacerbate traumatic stress symptoms (Fader et al., 2014; Piquero, 2009) and move systems farther from their TIC goals. Within the guidelines set forth by the NCTSN, enacting policies that address disparities is to address the unique needs of the diverse population that the legal system serves. Further research is needed to determine how to reduce the trauma exposure and structural racism for youth of color from the legal system for the goals of TIC to truly be accomplished. More specific guidelines on how to best train staff and change policies to be trauma-informed for the diverse youth served in the legal system are necessary to systematically ensure the reduction of the traumatic stress impact from the legal system.

While the primary focus of creating a more trauma-informed juvenile legal system is for the benefit of the youth, a secondary goal of the NCTSN guidelines is to develop policies that prevent and manage secondary traumatic stress, or the traumatic stress experienced by legal system staff after exposure to hearing about or seeing youth experience trauma (Canfield, 2005). This is a common theme in trauma work to prevent burnout both within and beyond the juvenile legal system (Canfield, 2005). Programs to reduce workplace stress and burnout are essential to creating a TIC system, as it is difficult to implement TIC if there is significant staff turnover because they require on-the-job training. If there are no senior staff that have a deep understanding of how to provide TIC, newer staff are unable to learn. Notably, there is evidence that positive perceptions of TIC are associated with a lower likelihood of burnout (Sheppard et al., 2022). However, staff safety mediates this relationship, so part of secondary stress prevention may include improving workplace physical and emotional safety (Sheppard et al., 2022).

While TIC is recommended for juvenile legal system reform, there are barriers to enacting policies in line with this goal. Future research should focus on both effectiveness and implementation outcomes to identify components of TIC that work and how to implement those components to meet the unique needs of the jurisdiction population and setting. Ultimately, TIC has the potential to lead to powerful policies that provide a safer and more effective legal system for youth if clinicians, researchers, and legal system staff can come together to change the way the legal system serves youth.

About the Author

Caroline E. Shanholtz, PhD (she/her/hers) is a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles in the TRUST Lab under Dr. Lauren Ng. Her research focuses on developing and implementing acceptable and sustainable interventions targeting traumatic stress for underserved youth facing adversity. She also provides evidence-based treatment for PTSD and other trauma-related disorders for children and adolescents.


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Branson, C. E., Baetz, C. L., Horwitz, S. M., & Hoagwood, K. E. (2017). Trauma-informed juvenile justice systems: A systematic review of definitions and core components. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 9(6), 635–646.

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