Notes from the field: Judge Christine Carpenter on trauma-informed courts

SAMHSA’s GAINS Center for Behavioral Health and Justice Transformation

The GAINS Center interviewed Judge Christine Carpenter, Circuit Judge of Division One in the 13th Judicial Circuit, Columbia, MO about what it’s like presiding over a trauma-informed court. Judge Carpenter is the supervising judge for the 13th Judicial Circuit Alternative Sentencing Courts: Adult Drug Court (since 1999), Mental Health Court (since 2003), Re-Entry Court (2007-2013), DWI Court (since 2010), and Veteran’s Treatment Court (since July 2013).

GAINS: Has awareness of trauma always been a part of your judicial process? If not, when/how did you become aware of the importance of being trauma-informed?

Judge Carpenter: I have not always been aware of trauma in my courtroom work. Many times the sources of information for a judge are limited and we really know very little about the people who appear before us. One of the strengths of treatment courts is the added insight given to the court by various members of the team who are familiar with the defendant/participant. I gradually became aware of the large number of participants who had been exposed to trauma the longer I worked with the treatment court population. One of the best experiences I had was to attend a GAINS conference which focused on that topic. It gave me a lot of insight into the “behind the scenes” experiences of the participants that they were accustomed to avoiding disclosing.

GAINS: How have the processes and procedures in your courtroom changed (if at all) over the years to move toward a more trauma-informed approach?

Judge Carpenter: Individually and as a team member, I have changed over the years as I try to analyze what could be causing certain behaviors. Inexplicable behavior sometimes starts to become understandable when we get a trauma history. When we first started talking about trauma, it was very female-centric. We have learned that trauma is not gender-specific, and that men have also suffered harm. Trauma exposure should always be a topic we explore when determining a case plan and services needed.

GAINS: Are there any particular cases that stand out to you where you are aware of how using a trauma-informed approach affected the victim(s)/offender(s)?

Judge Carpenter: I would not offer any stand out case that a trauma-informed approach has affected, but I would definitely say the value of screening for trauma is equal to or greater than any other parts of our screening. Many times we have participants who have “failed at treatment” multiple times. It is only when we can finally address some underlying traumatic history that they seem to break through and be able to apply what they have learned in treatment. The burden of carrying “secrets and lies” for years is a heavy one, and if not recognized, seems to affect every other part of life and prevent progress in breaking out of the cycle of addiction and criminal behavior.

GAINS: Do you think it is important for other court staff aside from the judge and court administrator to be trauma-informed (e.g., bailiff)? If so, how do you reach all essential staff?

Judge Carpenter: It is absolutely essential for all members of the staff, the team, and courthouse and jail personnel to be trauma-informed. If part of the criminal justice system is educated on this and working with the client, making changes, and gaining trust while another part of the system is oblivious to the problem and insensitive to the potential reaction of the participant and the reasons behind it, we are wasting our time and probably causing more harm. We do quarterly team and staff meetings to address specific issues; have an annual retreat to really spend time on training in specific areas; and try to include ancillary staff such as bailiffs, UA collectors, and administrative personnel in our weekly team meetings on occasion. Hopefully, this training and inclusion gives the staff insight into how they can affect the recovery process and makes them want to be part of the solution.

GAINS: Do you have any advice for other judges or court administrators looking to create a more trauma-informed court?

Judge Carpenter: The only advice I would offer is to keep communication flowing freely through the team, staff, and anyone who comes into contact with the participants as a representative of the court system. Occasionally including clerks, attorneys, law enforcement, and other players who may not be a regular part of the team gets them to have some stake in the process. Regular team training, cross training, and exercises to raise and maintain awareness about trauma is vital. It is always difficult to find extra time for the team to break away from the daily grind but always worth it for both the team and for the people we serve.