Trauma-Informed Legal Advocacy: A Resource for Juvenile Defense Attorneys

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Over 45 million children in the United States are affected by violence, crime, abuse, or psychological trauma each year, and many of them will become involved in the juvenile justice system. The majority of youth involved with the justice system (70-90%) have been exposed to trauma. The trauma experienced by justice-involved youth is often in multiple forms including, but not limited to, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, family and/or community violence, sex trafficking or commercial sexual exploitation, or loss of loved ones. Childhood exposure to violence and other traumatic events is a risk factor for arrest in adolescence, and youth with prior trauma exposure and related symptoms experience worse legal outcomes compared to youth without such a history.

Further, many youth experience additional stresses after entering the justice system apart from the inherent stress of the court interaction, including exposure to violence in detention/correctional facilities; infliction of harsh or invasive security practices such as shackling and other forms of physical restraint, punitive isolation, and strip searches; and separation from family, friends, and community. Collectively, these additional stressors are sometimes referred to as system-induced trauma. Some juvenile justice-involved youth may also be dually-involved with the child welfare system (i.e., dual system youth). It is important to keep in mind how involvement in both systems may affect youth, psychologically and legally.

This resource is intended to provide juvenile defense attorneys with an increased understanding of what trauma-informed legal advocacy entails, how trauma impacts child development, the attorney-client relationship, family and caregivers, and attorneys themselves. Additionally, this resource addresses screening and assessment, information sharing, transitions and placement decisions, and effective treatments for traumatic stress. Within each topic area, strategies for integrating this knowledge into legal advocacy (“Practice Tips”) are offered. Finally, this resource is intended to help you understand your role as the gatekeeper of trauma-based information for your client and support judiciously choosing how and when to use this information to best advocate for your client. Trauma-informed legal practice can strengthen legal advocacy, improve attorney-client relationships, and ultimately improve outcomes for youth. Additionally, awareness of secondary traumatic stress can improve prevention, identification, and self-care among legal professionals.

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