BY JUDGE R. MICHAEL KEY
When I became a juvenile court judge in 1989, I thought my charge was simply to do justice, to embrace the mantra of justice for all without regard for the person and without favor or retribution, a noble and challenging calling in and of itself. Somewhere along the way, I have come to realize, as fulfilling and important as that charge might be, doing justice while resolving specific disputes between parties does little to address the collateral damage inherent in our court system’s adversarial process, and even less to help the parties and their families heal from the damaging life experiences they brought into that process. Knowing now what we know about trauma, I have come to understand and accept that my charge as a judge, and our charge as stakeholders in the judicial system, is the greater responsibility of doing justice and promoting healing, healing among those we serve, among those who serve with us, and within ourselves.
Meeting our own needs and the needs of those we serve begins with creating a culture of well-being, of healing, where all people who enter our court feel physically and psychologically safe and valued. In creating this culture, it is important to understand that in the world in which we operate, reality often takes a back seat to perception. For the people we serve, their perception is their reality and their reality drives their behavior and impacts how they respond to us, to the court process, to treatment, and to everything else going on around them. We have to accept and value them for who they are and we have to demonstrate that to them. By doing so, we can create an environment they perceive to be physically and psychologically safe, where they feel valued. Creating that culture requires getting buy-in from all staff and relevant stakeholders and begins at the front door.
First impressions are extremely important and “beginning at the front door” includes the people and the physical environment. Some years ago, I presented at the ER with chest pains and pain radiating down my left arm. When I approached the first service window I saw and was asked, “Could I help you,” I described my condition as I have described it here, to which the lady replied in a monotone voice, legs swinging slowly in and out of the knee space of the desk on which she was sitting, “Next window.” Not the best response to a patient who a few minutes later would be nearing death. Yet how many times do we create that same impression by calling the “next case” with little regard for the parties in the previous case? The front door is not limited to the physical door that is the entryway to our buildings. The front door may be on the phone, through electronic communication, or in schools, in service provider offices, in lawyer’s offices, in homes, at the police department, or anywhere in the community where that first contact is made. Understanding that the first person people see in most courthouses is an armed deputy and the first
thing they see is a metal detector makes it even more important for the people and the physical environment beyond the metal detector to be welcoming and, to the extent possible, calming.
Once the people we serve are in the door, the next step is to engage them. Engagement is easier for some people than for others, and the reality is we cannot always get everyone to engage. What is important is to consistently give people a meaningful opportunity to do so. Too many times we see parents and children treated as the subject matter of the proceeding rather than as equal partners in the process. Too often their lawyers do not even give them the opportunity to speak in hearings or reviews. Parents and children should not lose their voice simply because they have issues that have to be dealt with in our courts and related systems. The voice of our foster care alumni group, EmpowerMEnt, “Nothing about us without us,” rings as true for parents as it does for children. Except where Fifth Amendment issues are involved, parents should be encouraged to speak out in court in an appropriate way and what they have to say should be heard and valued whether it is what we want to hear or not. And in my view, engagement promotes empowerment. Parents and children should be empowered to participate in decision making, often restoring a power that has been lost long before they were even known to the court system.
What we may not focus on enough is hope. When the people we serve lose hope, which many times is all some have left, failure is all but guaranteed. We have to plant seeds of hope in all we do and in all we say, even when accompanied by appropriate accountability. Those seeds can be planted in a number of ways, even in the physical environment. Turn dark into light whenever possible. Open the blinds and let the light in for goodness sake! You will be amazed how much difference it can make in how people feel.
At some point, you just have to dive in and get it done. We are becoming a trauma responsive court piece by piece and we are learning lessons along the way. If we wait until we have it all figured out, we will have spent too much of our time at the starting gate. If you decide to dive in, do it with the commitment I penned some years ago, “Doing for the children and families we serve that which we would want others to do for us and our families if we found ourselves in like circumstance.”
Coach Kirby Smart says, “If you get the culture right, everything else takes care of itself.” While conceding that the culture does not always take care of everything, we do know that it is extremely important in addressing past harm, minimizing future harm, and setting the stage for resolution and recovery. And, as the late Chief Justice P. Harris Hines, another hero of mine said and lived, “Be kind for everyone has his troubles.” Thanks to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (“NCJFCJ”), the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (“NCTSN”), the Barton Child Law and Policy Center, and the Georgia Child Welfare Training Collaborative for their support of our work. Our trauma journey began following a presentation from Dr. Shawn Marsh at an NCJFCJ annual conference, followed a few months later by a ‘trauma audit” by NCJFCJ, and most recently brought more into focus by participation as a pilot court for the Trauma Informed Care Self-Assessment developed by the NCTSN with the support of NCJFCJ.