New Trauma Education Curriculum Developed for North Carolina Judges

Aug 31, 2021Latest News, Trauma-Informed Courts

Silhouette of children holding hands in front of a sunrise

Working in collaboration with N.C. Chief Justice Paul Newby’s taskforce on ACEs-informed courts, the Bolch Judicial Institute at Duke Law School developed and administered a pilot version of a trauma education curriculum designed for North Carolina’s judges.

On Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, a small group of judges and court administrators met virtually for an educational program on trauma-informed courts. The judges’ participation and feedback on the program will be used to develop a trauma education curriculum for the broader state judiciary, which is expected to launch at the North Carolina district court judges conference in Cherokee, N.C., this October.

Amelia Ashton Thorn, assistant director of special projects at the Bolch Judicial Institute, said the program uses information from the groundbreaking CDC-Kaiser Health ACE study conducted in the 1990s. The study led to many realizations about the role of childhood trauma as a predictor of negative life events and health outcomes.

“We are gratified to virtually break ground on this trauma curriculum for judges in North Carolina,” she said. “Since Chief Justice Paul Newby’s commission on ACEs-informed courts launched earlier this year, we have seen an increase in interest from judges and lawyers on ways to make their courts more sensitive to the effects of childhood trauma. Our hope is that this program offers practical steps for judges who encounter these issues on a daily basis through the families that enter their courtrooms.”

Over the course of the morning, participants heard presentations on three topics: the science of trauma; the trauma movement in North Carolina; and applying trauma skills from the bench. Presenters included Chief District Judge Julius H. Corpening II of North Carolina’s Fifth Judicial District; Dr. Tripp Ake of the Duke Center for Child & Family Health; Dr. Kelly Graves of the Kellin Foundation; and Judge Lynn Tepper (retired) of Florida’s Sixth Judicial Circuit.

Afterward, the judges participated in a focus group led by Eva McKinsey, a Ph.D. student in the Applied Social and Community Psychology program at North Carolina State University, to offer feedback on the curriculum. To end the program, participants learned about current research in areas of childhood trauma being conducted by scholars affiliated with Duke University and were given the opportunity to suggest additional areas of study that could be particularly helpful to judges.

The Bolch Judicial Institute’s Director David F. Levi, himself a former federal judge who is serving on Justice Newby’s task force on trauma-informed courts, observed Friday’s program. He remarked on the program’s potential to transform court practices to better serve children and communities.

“We are so grateful for the judges and court administrators who participated in the pilot program to help develop this curriculum,” he said. “It is especially rewarding to see how judges and medical experts can work together to translate scholarship on childhood trauma into actual practice, and to translate actual practice into new research questions. The goal is to help our courts become more effective and less frightening to children who are suffering from childhood trauma.”

The trauma education program is made possible in part by several generous donors to the Bolch Judicial Institute, including a gift from the Winer Family Foundation, a Charlotte-based nonprofit organization focused on the health and development of children and families. The Foundation partners with nonprofits and grassroots organizations that work to build a resilient culture in North Carolina through systems-level strategies that address root causes or inequities.

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