March 01, 2015

Courtroom Tips: Developmental Checklist

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Infants: Although an infant is unable to contribute much to court, there are ways to bring the infant to life and help the judge and court professionals see him or her as a person. 

Bring the infant to court occasionally so the judge and court professionals see him as a real person, not a thing. 

  • Bring photos of the infant, updated regularly, to show at court proceedings.

  • Have a child representative who knows the infant well come to court to share the latest information about the infant.

  • To personalize the infant, use her name when referring to her in court.

Toddlers: Toddlers can play limited roles in court and their experiences can be positive with some accommodations.

  • Let the toddler meet the judge and other court professionals and staff (attorneys, court clerk, bailiff, etc.).

  • Allow the toddler to identify key people in his life (in-person contacts and pictures).

  • Have simple toys available to provide something mutual to focus on and help the child feel more comfortable.

  • Bring a typical child’s game or learn a song to engage and build rapport with the child.

  • To connect with the child, learn something the child likes and comment about it.

Preschoolers: Preschoolers have a greater capacity to understand what is happening in court and are developing an ability to participate in proceedings. 

They may be able to draw their thoughts for the court.

  • They have an increased knowledge of court roles and are aware that there are authority figures with roles in our lives. They begin to understand that judges make decisions when parents cannot.

  • They can tell the judge and attorneys personal stories of good things they’ve done, what scares them, etc.

  • They can explore and check out the courtroom. Let them look behind tables and benches, and sit in chairs.

Early school age: Early school-aged children can attend court for general issues.

  • Prepare the child by providing an age-appropriate description of the court process (e.g., use a coloring book showing the lawyer, judge, and all parties, or a video with cartoon characters describing a day in court).

  • Avoid having the child present during courtroom situations with high conflict or hostility.

  • Encourage the child to role play and use imagination (sit at tables, call court to order).

  • Encourage the child to ask questions. Give positive feedback on questions asked and encourage the child to ask more (“Do you have more questions.”). This gives the child a sense of control and competence. 

  • Ask the child about things she cares about—school, friends, and activities.

School-age: School-age children have a higher capacity to deal with court proceedings. Depending on the circumstances, the child may want to be involved in all court proceedings.

  • Let the child meet the judge.

  • Provide a support person for the child.

  • Reassure the child that she is not responsible for the court proceedings or events.

  • Encourage the child to participate in proceedings that do not include conflict, noncompliance issues, or other upsetting matters.

  • Keep the child’s court participation brief – 30-60 minutes max.

Preadolescents: Preadolescents should be able to talk with lawyers, the judge, and others in court.

  • Provide a support person if needed.

  • Encourage opinions but set limits on arguments.

  • Provide an escape plan and other coping mechanisms.

  • Let the child participate, even in small ways.

  • Share documents that are appropriate for the child to read to increase awareness and a sense of control.

Adolescents: Depending on the circumstances, adolescents may want to be involved in all court proceedings. 

  • Ask the teen why he wants to be at court proceedings and how he would like to contribute. He should be able to articulate both. Having the answers provides structure and forethought and identifies if the teen’s motivation is to “get back“ at a parent (something to avoid).

  • Respect the child’s feelings. Even if she wants to participate, the emotional intensity may be too great and cause her to opt out at the last minute.

  • Have the child write down thoughts or ideas to be shared with the court if he does not want to attend proceedings. Sometimes the child wants to attend but feels more comfortable having someone else read his words.

  • Since adolescents are peer-focused, consider having the child’s best friend attend the proceeding with her, or be there in the hallway, to offer support.

Bonus tips (for all groups)

  • Avoid too much information.

  • Answer children’s questions honestly but within developmentally appropriate limits. 

  • Clarify that court does not equal the truth. Someone can go free if there is not enough evidence. 

  • It may help to explain the need for the child to testify or be a witness by focusing on how it is a duty as a citizen.

  • Don’t promise feelings of recovery will come if the child participates in court proceedings.