Bass Connections team finishes court observation phase of trauma-informed courts research project

Oct 9, 2023Latest News, Trauma-Informed Courts

Duke University | Bass Connections

Over the summer, a team of Duke students traveled to juvenile delinquency courtrooms across North Carolina to collect data for a research project focused on better understanding trauma-informed practices in court. The team observed 201 hearings across 36 court visits and 16 judges in 7 counties, compiling an extensive data set on a wide range of variables, including courthouse environment, policies and procedures, demographics of court participants, and judges’ interactions with children and their parents.

Their work is part of an ongoing project, funded by the Duke Bass Connections program, that is examining how judges’ behaviors and interactions in juvenile delinquency court may impact outcomes for young people who are court-involved.

The completion of this data collection phase marks a major milestone for the Bass Connections project team that was first assembled in May 2022. The team has had an inside look at the realities of conducting applied research in the courtroom setting and has engaged in many crucial “behind the scenes” research tasks, such as adapting the study to respond to Duke’s Institutional Review Board requirements governing research involving people. Students also created and refined the study’s observation instrument — essentially a checklist that helps students document various interactions between the judge and children as well as environmental factors in the courtroom that may contribute to or reduce a child’s anxiety — used to collect data in court.

Amelia Ashton Thorn, assistant director of the Bolch Judicial Institute and project co-leader, said the research presented a unique opportunity to report on what happens inside a courtroom.

“Much of the empirical research on courts involves analyzing opinions and outcomes that are often published by the courts themselves,” Thorn said. “In this project, we are studying the interactions that must happen in order to reach those outcomes. In doing so, we can hopefully find ways to improve those interactions and outcomes for all justice-involved people.”

Project co-leader Dr. Eva McKinsey, a social and community psychologist whose research focuses on trauma-informed care in the criminal legal context, noted that the observation data will help fill a gap in the existing literature about trauma-informed courts. “This study will give us a clearer picture of what kinds of trauma-informed practices judges are and are not employing in court, like acknowledging strengths and resilience factors for court-involved youth, and whether they are employed in an equitable manner,” she said.

Catherine Gorey, a third-year Duke Law student who serves as a graduate student leader for the project and headed efforts to develop the observational instrument, said it was gratifying to see the instrument put into practice. “Finally having the data in hand is a great feeling. And the experiential component of being in court to collect data has been invaluable to my law school education.”

The team is now moving into the data analysis and reporting phase of the research project on the observation data, aiming for publication in 2024. In the meantime, the team also hopes to conduct additional research to better understand the experiences of youth who were involved in juvenile delinquency court in the counties where they conducted court observations. Those findings will be used to inform future research efforts as well as new judicial training curriculum on trauma-informed courts offered by the Bolch Judicial Institute in North Carolina and beyond.