Trauma-Informed Judicial Practices During a Natural Disaster

Lisa Cope Duflock, Staff Attorney

Survivors of intimate partner violence are members of a group which can benefit when treated with a trauma-informed approach. [1] Like other trauma survivors, domestic violence survivors do not uniformly approach their trauma and there are no universal responses to these traumatic events.[2] However, “short-term consequences can include re-experiencing the traumatic event, such as having recurrent or intrusive distressing recollection of the event, acting or feeling as if the event is recurring, or avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma.”[3] In particular, “court proceedings may run the risk of causing the client to relive or confront the trauma, and court proceedings themselves may cause further trauma to the client.”[4] With this in mind, when working with domestic violence trauma survivors, “trauma-informed services and programs are more supportive (rather than controlling and punitive), [and] avoid retraumatizing  . . .  those served.”[5] Furthermore, attorneys and judges must think critically about “procedural justice, defined as access to the courts or representation in court, but also about true substantive justice for litigants, a term which ‘could be perceived to require disassembling the existing power structure in order to precipitate a redistribution of resources.’”[6]

In this regard, a “trauma-informed system also focuses on how services are delivered, and how service-systems are organized.”[7] Indeed, “a trauma-informed approach to services or intervention acknowledges the prevalence and impact of trauma and attempts to create a sense of safety for all participants, whether or not they have a trauma-related diagnosis. Becoming trauma-informed requires re-examining policies and procedures that may result in participants feeling loss of control in specific situations.”[8]

When trauma-informed, decision makers recognize five important principles which are critical to a trauma-informed response: safety, trust and transparency, choice, collaboration, and empowerment.[9]  Importantly, domestic violence survivors, who often lose their choice and control through feelings of powerlessness, need to be provided with opportunities to recapture that choice and control.[10] Trauma survivors need to be able to express themselves and control their narrative and voice.[11] In the legal services environment this requires lawyers and judges to put “the realities of the clients’ trauma experiences at the forefront of engaging with clients and adjusts the practice approach informed by the individual client’s trauma experience.”[12]

There are, of course, limits to the latitude and control which trauma survivors can be given to be able to control their own voice and narrative in a judicial system. For example, there are legal requirements regarding restraining order hearings or custody and visitation orders which must be fulfilled. However, notwithstanding this, procedures can be instituted and decisions made through a trauma-informed lens. For example, in situations such as with the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, collaboration is extremely important. This collaboration should happen with domestic violence survivors and domestic violence service providers to look at nuanced issues to determine the best strategies for addressing issues such as custody or visitation, restraining order hearings between survivors and abusers, and general requirements of abuse survivors in a natural disaster.

Natural disasters such as hurricanes or pandemics which require vast numbers of people to shelter in place or remain home for extended periods of time, as well as require significant curtailing of judicial functions and procedures, can be particularly troublesome for traumatized domestic violence survivors. As such, when creating court policies and procedures for issues which particularly impact these survivors, such as restraining order hearings or custody or visitation, they must do so through a trauma-informed lens, collaborating with domestic abuse survivors and domestic abuse service providers to ensure that survivors are kept safe from further domestic abuse, given choices and empowered. Utilizing a trauma-informed lens in these instances benefits the courts and the survivors and helps ensure the court proceedings continue with as much expediency as possible, and survivors are kept safe and able to thrive.



[1] Deeya Haldar and Sarah Katz, “The Pedagogy of Trauma-Informed Lawyering,” 22 Clinical L. Rev.  359 (2015), 365.

[2] Ibid., 367.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 374.

[5] Ibid., 370.

[6] Ibid., 374.

[7] Ibid., 363.

[8] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, SAMHSA’s National Center on Trauma-Informed Care and SAMHSA’s National GAINS Center for Behavioral Health and Justice, “Essential Components of Trauma-Informed Judicial Practice,” (Rockville, MD.: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2013), 1.

[9] Interview with Meagan Corrado, University of Buffalo Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care Podcast Series, “Rising from the Ashes . . .  Trauma Talks,” April 15, 2020.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Trauma-Informed Lawyering,” at 361.