Trauma-Informed Practices in the Courts: Education & Research Programs


Trauma Education for the Bench, Administrators, and Counsel

The Bolch Judicial Institute at Duke Law is a national leader in education and research relating to the use of trauma-informed practices in court. Among other initiatives, the Institute created North Carolina’s first-ever trauma-focused training for all new district court judges as part of new judges orientation, co-authored a bench card on trauma-informed practices with the Chief Justice’s Task Force on ACEs-Informed Courts, and launched a large-scale research project investigating the use of trauma-informed practices in juvenile delinquency courts. The Institute also travels to other states to offer educational programs to judges and administrators on trauma-informed practices and systems-level change. Contact for more information on the Institute’s work in trauma education and trauma research.

Why Focus on Courts?

The Institute brings trauma education to judges—and focuses on the courts as a source of research—for three primary reasons:

  • Trauma can lead to court involvement: Effects of trauma on the brain, body, and behavior – such as decreased activity of the prefrontal cortex and adoption of maladaptive coping behaviors – can increase the likelihood of trauma survivors engaging in violent and criminalized behavior (Fox et al., 2015; Kar, 2018; Kim & Choi, 2020; McCord, 1983), possibly resulting in legal system involvement.
  • Court itself can be traumatizing: Traumatic stress can result from, or be exacerbated by, legal system processes and professionals. For example, people accused or convicted of crimes, especially those with stigmatized identities, may encounter abuse or harassment by criminal legal personnel while being system-involved (Listwan et al., 2010; Stotzer, 2014). Victims and survivors of crime also report re-traumatization as a result of victim-blaming, dismissive responses, and the requirement of confronting their abusers during the court process (Campbell, 2005; Epstein & Goodman, 2019; Katirai, 2020).
  • Court professionals experience vicarious trauma: Criminal legal professionals (e.g., judges and attorneys) report some of the highest rates of secondary trauma among service providers due to high levels of interaction with people who have experienced trauma coupled with the need to maintain confidentiality, which can limit opportunities for processing (Jaffre et al., 2009; Levine et al., 2011).

Education Initiatives

The Institute’s trauma-informed courts curriculum helps judges, court officers, and court administrators understand the nature of juvenile trauma, the origin and lasting effects of trauma and toxic stress, intergenerational trauma, the connection between trauma and addiction, approaches to mitigating stress and establishing coping strategies, and other essential knowledge. The course also offers concrete practices judges might adopt in order to better interact with affected parties, particularly juveniles, read and understand trauma assessments, and craft trauma-informed orders.

All trainings include at least two perspectives—the scientific and the judicial—with doctors describing the effects of trauma on the brain and body along with its connection to court-involvement, and judges offering concrete strategies to help address trauma in the courtroom. Longer programs may include perspectives from other legal actors, like district attorneys and public defenders, as well as stories from those with lived experience in the system, along with opportunities for practice through hypothetical courtroom scenarios. Trainings can also address approaches to system-wide change and administrative approaches to creating more trauma-informed courts.

Contact if your court is interested in a training.

Past and upcoming trainings include:

  • Pilot Program: In 2021, the Institute partnered with the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts to create and administer an educational pilot program for about a dozen district court judges. The judges in attendance hailed from both urban and rural counties, and represented a range of judicial experiences and prior encounters with trauma education. Months after the program, judges were systematically interviewed about their perspective on the program and their implementation of the practices offered in the training. Findings are published in Judicature, with an additional article in a scientific journal forthcoming.
  • New Judges Orientation: In Summer 2023, the Institute again partnered with the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts to provide the first-ever trauma-focused program to all new district court judges as part of the state’s new judges orientation program. Judges heard from doctors, judges, attorneys, and former defendants about approaches to trauma-informed practice in the courtroom. Results from surveys administered at orientation is forthcoming.
  • Program for Chief District Court Judges: In Fall 2023, the Institute will host a combined meeting of the Task Force and all district court chiefs in the state, providing the latter group with two days of education on trauma-informed courts. The program marks the first intensive training on the topic for these court leaders as well as an opportunity for them to gain exposure to the work of the Task Force.
  • Out-of-State Trainings: The Institute continues to offer similar trainings in other states to judges involved in both juvenile and adult courts, most recently in Arizona.
  • Trauma-Informed Lawyering: The Institute offered Duke Law’s first trauma-focused lawyering course as part of a Wintersession course in early 2024. Wintersession offers students an opportunity to focus on a topic of practical interest in a brief, intensive setting, emphasizing hands-on, experiential learning. The course offered an overview of the science behind trauma, advice on how to work with clients who have experienced trauma, and approaches to address vicarious trauma in the workplace.

Research Initiatives

The Institute and its research team has engaged in three primary approaches to investigating trauma-informed practices in the North Carolina courts:

  • Judicial Surveys: The team surveyed nearly 100 district court judges about their perspectives on trauma-informed care. The Institute also regularly administers surveys to judges following educational programs about their experiences, perspectives, and practices. Read Trauma-Informed Judicial Practice from the Judges’ Perspective​ from Judicature Vol. 106 No. 2 (2022) to learn about judges’ experiences of the pilot educational program.
  • Court Observations: The team traveled around the state to observe the use of trauma-informed practices in juvenile delinquency courts, visiting 200 hearings across 35 court visits and 15 judges in 7 counties. The observations offer a wealth of data on courthouse atmosphere, demographics of participants, and judges’ interactions with parents and children, among other measures.
  • Surveys of Children: The team is in the process of surveying the children who appeared before the judges observed, in order to get a sense of their experiences in court. We intend to attempt to link the use of trauma-informed practices by judges with how juveniles perceive court, as well as their trauma symptomology pre- and post- court visit, and their motivations to change.

Dr. Eva McKinsey, a social and community psychologist whose work focuses on shifting attitudes about trauma-informed care, serves as the primary research consultant on the project. She has served as a trainer and consultant for various educational programs as well.

It is also supported by a team of dedicated students working under a grant from Duke’s Bass Connections, a program that allows an interdisciplinary team of undergraduate and graduate students to work with professors on cutting-edge, socially oriented research projects.


The program was initially funded by a grant from the HopeStar Foundation, which takes as its mission to ensure that all families with children aged prenatal to five are healthy, educated, and empowered. Since then, a wide range of sponsors, including Duke Bass Connections, NC IOLTA and the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues have funded various initiatives that form the basis of the project.

We continue to seek additional sponsors for this important work. For more information, to get involved, or to offer financial support, please contact Amelia Ashton Thorn, Assistant Director of the Bolch Judicial Institute, at

ACES-informed Courts Task Force Report

Click here to download the Final Report from the N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice’s ACEs-Informed Courts Task Force.

Trauma-Informed Courts In The News