Trauma Sensitive Courts

David A. Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP
Clinical Director, Children’s Home of Poughkeepsie
Faculty Associate, Johns Hopkins University

Watch Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Jillian Anderson, in St. Charles County, Missouri, explain the difference that a courthouse facility dog makes for children in court:


Courts can be hazardous to the psychological safety of crime victims especially children. The Constitution does a superb job protecting the rights of the accused but does not provide equal safeguards for those who suffer the ravages of violent crime. Children as victims/witnesses are most likely to be thrust into the adversarial arena as a result of child sexual or physical abuse. Sexual and physical assault leave child victims “voiceless” but at the same time expected to participate in a highly verbal process when testifying in court. Children are silenced because trauma and neuroscience researchers report that trauma is frequently encoded in regions of the brain not accessible to verbal expression. When the body is assaulted (not to mention the spirit) of a child, the child’s brain is mobilized by the stress response system to rely on survival circuits in the brain (frequently referred to as the “lower brain”) while the higher, more sophisticated circuits of the brain that mediate language, thought, and reasoning shut down.

Children are also silenced by the trilogy of abuse-related trauma effects of secrecy, shame, and stigma. Trauma therapists are quite familiar with the need to establish safety with child victims and to forge a strong, trusting relationship before children can tell the story of what happened to them. When the disclosure is forced by the pressures of the legal process, when there is no time to build a safe and trusting relationship, when sensitivity to timing and pacing is lacking, the risk of re-traumatization increases.

Trauma also disrupts the memory system of child victims. Trauma memories are often referred to as implicit memories. Typically implicit memories are fragments consisting of sensory-motor-somatic-visceral sensations that when activated take the form of reenactment or “re-living” of the original trauma experience(s) often accompanied with the overwhelming emotions of fear and terror. Children can eventually make sense of their fragmented trauma memories by using nonverbal means of communicating through play, art, and other creative expression (the language of the right-hemisphere). The ability to make sense of their experience, place it in perspective, and to make meaning of it (left hemisphere dominant functions) is a primary goal of trauma-informed therapy.

In courtroom testimony, safety and sensitivity to timing and pacing are not what drives the questioning process. In fact the court process embraces aggressive argument, strategic and selective presentation of facts, and in the case of child witnesses the use of developmentally inappropriate, complex language, and repeated questions with subtle variations for the purpose of demonstrating inconsistencies in the verbalizations of young children. The assumption is that this hostile, tense, adversary context aids the truth-seeking process. This assumption does not seem credible in the face of current knowledge of child trauma. Judith Herman a child trauma authority stated, “Indeed, if one set out intentionally to design a system for provoking symptoms of posttraumatic disorder, it might look very much like a court of law” (p.159). The use of facility dogs to provide calm and comfort to vulnerable child witnesses when testifying is one welcome step in the direction of making the court system more trauma sensitive.

i Judith Lewis Herman (2003). The Mental Health of Crime Victims: Impact of Legal Intervention. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 16 (2), 159-166.


Additional references

Beauregard, E., Rossmo, D. K., & Proulx, J. (2007). A descriptive process of the hunting process of serial sex offenders: A rational choice model. Journal of Family Violence, 22, 449-463.

Conte, J. R., Wolfe, S., & Smith, T. (1989). What sexual offenders tell us about prevention strategies. Child Abuse & Neglect, 13, 293-301.

Crenshaw, D. A., Rudy, C., Triemer, D., & Zingaro, J. (1986). Breaking the silent bond: Psychotherapy with abused children. Residential Group Care & Treatment, 3, 25-38.

Crenshaw, D. A., & Mordock, J. B. (2004). An ego-strengthening approach with multiply traumatized children: Special reference to the sexually abused. Residential Treatment of Children and Youth, 23, 1–18.

Elliott, M., Browne, K., & Kilcoyne, J. (1995). Child sexual abuse prevention: What sexual offenders tell us. Child Abuse & Neglect, 19, 579-594.

Freyd, J.J. (1997). Violations of power, adaptive blindness, and betrayal trauma theory. Feminism & Psychology, 7, 22-32.

Goodman, G. S.  (2005). Wailing babies in her wake. American Psychologist, 60 (8), 872-881.
Herman, J. L. (2003). The mental health of crime victims: Impact of legal intervention. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 16 (2), 159-166.

Leclerc, B., Proulx, J., & Beauregard, E. (2009). Examining the modus operandi of sexual offenders against children and its practical implications. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14, 5-12.

Lyons, T. D. & Dente, J. A. (2012). Child witnesses and the confrontation clause. The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 102 (4), 1181-1232.

Saxe, G., Ellis, H., & Kaplow, J. B. (2009). Collaborative treatment of traumatized children and teens: The Trauma Systems Therapy approach. New York: Guilford.

Thoman, D. H. (2014). Testifying minors: Pre-trial strategies to reduce anxiety in child witnesses. Nevada Law Journal, 14, 236-267.

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