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March 11, 2019 Practice Points

Five Things about Trauma that Children’s Lawyers Should Know

It is important to have a basic understanding of and recognize how trauma impacts child clients and their behavior.

By Eliza M. Hirst and Cathy Krebs

Most children in the child welfare system have experienced multiple traumas (often stemming from the event that triggered a child abuse hotline report and the resulting separation from family). Lawyers need to understand the trauma that their child client has experienced, how that trauma impacts behavior, and how the intervention of the judicial system can cause or exacerbate trauma.

This list was written by lawyers who are not trauma experts and reading this list will not make you an expert in trauma nor enable you to diagnose trauma. But it is important to have some basic understanding of trauma and recognize how it impacts child clients and their behavior.

Here are five things about trauma that children’s lawyers should know:

  1. Trauma can lead to substantial disruption in both a child’s brain and developmental milestones. Chronic trauma has “a pervasive effect on the development of mind and brain,” and children who experiences chronic trauma can “experience developmental delays across a broad spectrum, including cognitive, language, motor and socialization.” 
  2. Chronic trauma may create a frequent unsettled flight, fright, or freeze state for a child, leading a child to view adults and the world around them as unsafe. The results of experiencing trauma can include “a pervasive pattern of dysregulation, problems with attention and concentration and difficulties getting along with self and others.” The Body Keeps the Score p. 160. This can look like withdrawal, aggression toward others (which for children of color can especially be perceived as a threat), hyperactivity, or impulsivity. Behaviors from trauma can look different at different ages—for example it might start as anxiety and then change into aggression towards others, particularly around puberty. 
  3. Some of the things, based on the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, that can cause trauma for our child clients include, but are not limited to:
    1. abuse, neglect, or severe deprivation;
    2. sexual violence;
    3. witnessing domestic and/or community violence;
    4. involvement in the immigration, child welfare, or juvenile justice system;
    5. separation from families through death, placement into the foster care system, or having an incarcerated parent;
    6. poverty; and
    7. discrimination and bullying.
  4. When considering the impact of a client’s trauma in a case, be prepared to present evidence on both how trauma affects the wiring of the brain and how brains can be rewired and reorganized with appropriate treatment. While trauma does not excuse behavior, it should be understood as a normal function of the brain that can and should be treated, not punished.
  5. Lawyers should understand that clients who have experienced chronic trauma require significant support, particularly as they continue to grow and evolve. Brains can grow and be rewired in healthy ways if clients have trusted adults to help them. As such, it is our job to ensure that placements and services are appropriate and responsive to the needs of our clients.  Safety and stability for our clients is one of the foundational ways that they will become resilient, and so we should focus on placements with well-supported family members, the stability of those placements, and support in school for your school-aged clients. 

To learn more, see Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ TED Talk, “The Body Keeps the Score:  Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. and/or The Deepest Well by Nadine Burke Harris, M.D. These are invaluable resources with information about how trauma impacts humans as well as the most effective treatment.

Eliza M. Hirst  is a deputy child advocate at the Office of the Child Advocate in Wilmington, Delaware, and Cathy Krebs is the director of the Children's Rights Litigation Committee.

Copyright © 2019, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).