April 01, 2021

Building a Trauma-Informed Court in Memphis, TN

by Claire Chiamulera

This article highlights the innovative work of one of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges’ Implementation Courts. It is reprinted from the recent publication, Redefining Judicial Leadership: Stories of Transformative Practicea collection of articles showcasing several Implementation Courts and their work to improve court practice for children and families. Note that some time passed between when the articles were originally written and publication of the book so new developments at the court are not reflected.

In downtown Memphis, three blocks from the Mississippi River, the Memphis and Shelby County Juvenile Court welcomes children and families who enter its doors with a warm embrace. Classical music plays on the piano in the lobby. Doors are painted the colors of the rainbow, and a Dr. Seuss mural consumes a wall on the way to the child abuse department. Staff smile and show families where to wait. Signs indicate when and where cases will be heard. Attorneys quietly escort clients to assigned courtrooms when cases are called.

It wasn’t always that way. When Judge Dan Michael became judge of the court in 2014, he walked into a courthouse with dark, paneled courtrooms, staid corridors lined with headshots of past judges, and closed windows with shades drawn. Families waited in an overcrowded, chaotic main hall, craning to hear each time the bailiff appeared and shouted the case name at the top of his lungs. For a court whose job was to rehabilitate and strengthen children and families, the environment was hardly conducive.

A trauma assessment conducted in 2015 by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) agreed. “That assessment turned over every leaf, and opened every door,” recalled Judge Michael. The six-person team of psychologists and social workers who performed the assessment studied everything – noise, smells, sounds, light, signage, staff training, and court practices. A written report outlined actions the court needed to take to create a more trauma-informed, trauma responsive court.

Judge Michael and his staff wasted little time. As of late 2018, three-fourths of the recommendations are complete. Short of building a new court building, they dramatically transformed the court culture and physical environment and adopted practices that were sensitive to child and family trauma.

Changing the court culture

Before making changes to reduce and respond to trauma experienced by children and families entering the court, Judge Michael knew he had to get his own house in order first. When he became judge, he found the culture was very top-down, decisions were made in the corner office, management took care of friends, and the staff walked with their heads down.

“I don’t function that way,” said Judge Michael. Drawing on his business background, he introduced a new management philosophy, one focused on valuing and empowering staff, collaborating and building consensus, hiring and promoting from within, and helping staff tap their strengths and shine. He gave staff authority and let them make decisions, made sure they had the tools to do their jobs, then stepped out of the way. With his management team, he pushed this philosophy throughout the organization of 250 people.

Judge Michael also instituted several new approaches to make work fun for staff, address work-life balance, and emphasize self-care. For example:

  • Each spring, staff gather for “Lunch on the Lawn,” an afternoon cookout with food provided by a sponsor.
  • Staff dress up on Halloween and pass out candy to children and families who come to court.
  • A new inclement weather policy closes the court anytime county schools close due to weather, recognizing the danger of requiring staff to come to work and the difficulty parents have finding last-minute child care.
  • A reduced holiday docket the last 2.5 weeks of the calendar year gives staff downtime during a hectic time and lets them refresh before the new year.
  • Staff are encouraged to pay attention to their own and colleagues’ self-care. If they notice a coworker seems down or their work is sinking, they are encouraged to reach out and support that person directly and through referrals to the Employee Assistance Program.
  • Through a partnership with the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Tennessee School of Medicine, all staff are trained on trauma and secondary traumatic stress or vicarious trauma, so they learn to recognize when the nature of the work may be affecting them and constructive ways to address it.

These changes have created a setting where people want to come to work. Staff productivity and work satisfaction have risen throughout all levels of the organization. “By changing the culture and making this place a little bit better, we get more done, and we do a better job for our clients,” said Judge Michael. Shifting the court culture set the foundation to start making changes to respond to the trauma experiences of children and families served by the court.

Improving the court atmosphere

Bringing art into building

Two artists were given creative control of the second and third floors of the courthouse. They asked staff their favorite colors, then handed each one a paintbrush and can of paint and assigned a door. Walking down the hall today, the doors reflect the colors of a rainbow. The artists transformed drab walls with colorful murals of Dr. Seuss characters, undersea pictures, and beach scenes. “The theory is if I can attract a mother’s, father’s or child’s attention with a piece of art that grabs them, it’s going to lower their anxiety to some extent,” said Judge Michael.

Bringing the outside in

 Windows that had been shut for years with blinds drawn tight were opened to allow natural light and fresh air to enter the building. Plants were also brought in to create a connection to the outdoors and bring life into the court building. 

Reducing the trauma of coming to court

Several efforts are in place or underway to welcome children and families and make navigating court less stressful.

Assisting children and families who come to court

Court staff greet children and families when they arrive, tell them where to sit, and ask them to watch white boards and an electronic case board for case information and court assignments. When a case is called, attorneys meet their clients in the waiting area and escort them to the courtroom. These efforts replace an age-old practice of having the courtroom bailiff yell case names as they are called, a practice that created chaos and confusion and left the safety of the courtroom unattended.

A court ambassador program is in the works that will assign volunteers to each courtroom to meet and check off children and families as they arrive at court, answer questions, and orient and provide direction. They will keep parties informed of the case status and accompany them to the assigned courtroom when their case is called.

The court is also leveraging technology to inform clients about their cases. A software program, expected to be in place at the end of 2018, will allow the court to enter cell phone numbers of case parties. The program will then automatically send a text message reminder to parties the day before their case hearing with the hearing date, court address, and assigned courtroom number. On the day of the case, the parties, witnesses, and attorneys will receive a text informing them when their case is ready and the courtroom number.

Respecting clients and helping them understand court process

Court staff are trained on how to talk to and engage children and families who come to court. Following guidance in the NCJFCJ Enhanced Resource Guidelines, judges control the courtroom in a way that is respectful and nonthreatening and engages the parties. For example, Judge Michael says he’ll ask a child’s name, then ask if the child prefers to be called Sam or Mr. Smith? He also asks the child a direct question, such as how the child is doing in school, if the child got a good night sleep, etc. Similarly, he will put the child’s family at ease by asking the parents’ names and engaging them directly and respectfully.  

Judge Michael explains the proceedings to parties and encourages questions. “I tell litigants all the time: Consider yourself in a foreign country. We speak a foreign language called legalese so if I say anything you don’t understand, raise your hand and I will explain it to you.” Parties also receive a copy of the court order before they leave the courtroom, so they know specifically what is required of them. “All of these things tend to ratchet down the anxiety and make folks feel welcomed, not threatened” said Judge Michael. He contrasted that with a judge who immediately starts a trial by asking the prosecutor to call the first witness. “When you just launch into trial without explaining the process to litigants they walk out in a daze,” he said.

Providing therapy dogs

A collaboration with Western Tennessee Therapy Dog Services brings therapy dogs into the court to sit with children during trials and hearings. For many children, a dog at the child’s feet or side calms and helps the child feel safe and protected. “We know the benefits of having animals around children,” said Judge Michael. “It relaxes them.”

Offering parent orientation and education programs

Judge Michael’s staff provide parent orientation programs in the community to help parents understand the legal process and expectations. Parent education programs were first started to teach parents whose children were detained by law enforcement about the legal process and requirements around attending probation meetings. The program had a positive impact by reducing the number of warrants the judge had to issue and giving parents a roadmap of how the system worked. Parent education programs were then broadened to all legal matters the court handles – child abuse and neglect, custody and visitation, delinquency, and child support. Increasing understanding of how the system works decreases stress and anxiety of participating in the legal system and in many cases prevents court involvement.

Assessing and responding to family trauma       

Assessing clients’ trauma

Court staff are trained on trauma-responsive approaches and validated tools to assess family trauma. Voluntary trauma assessments are conducted on each family that comes to court. Judge Michael and the court magistrates only see the assessment findings after adjudication and use it to make informed decisions about how to treat children and families and provide rehabilitative services. The court has relationships with community service providers who provide trauma-informed services (e.g., psychologists, group homes, religious institutions), so if a family or child presents with serious trauma in their background, the court will refer them to one of those providers.

Introducing trauma-responsive programs

Several court-based programs reduce trauma by diverting children and families from the court system. A juvenile detention diversion program is reducing the number of children who come to court by working with law enforcement to develop a detention assessment tool. Youth who do not need to be detained are sent home, given a summons, and asked to participate in a 45-minute educational program. They don’t get juvenile court records. Judge Michael says this program has reduced the number of youth who come to court by over 85%. Similar programs designed to divert youth who carry guns and juvenile sex offenders from the juvenile system are also shielding youth from the legal system.

Four years into the court’s efforts to become more trauma responsive, Judge Michael cites his involvement with NCJFCJ as the strongest influence. Not only did the trauma assessment uncover areas to reform, but trainings and guidance provided by NCJFCJ and connections with other juvenile court judges and staff in the organization meant he didn’t have to go at it alone. They gave him the knowledge and tools to lay the groundwork, start changing the court’s culture and physical environment, connect with community partners who could support his efforts, and reimagine a court that places the child and family’s experience at the center and promises to do no further harm.  

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.