Sara DePasquale and Jacquelyn Greene discuss work advising Chief Justice Newby’s Task Force on ACEs-Informed Courts

A study commissioned by the American Journal of Prescriptive Medicine examining the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) found that (1) the ten traumatic childhood experiences included in the study are common experiences and (2) that increased exposure to ACEs was related to increased risk for negative health and well-being outcomes and life opportunities including education and employment. Youth who have experiences that may bring them into the courthouse, such as abuse and neglect, delinquent behavior, or high levels of parental or family economic stress, are at elevated risk for exposure to multiple ACEs. Additional research shows that, once involved in the court process, many people who experience ACEs also report re-traumatization.

In response to this data, Supreme Court of North Carolina Chief Justice Paul Newby established a first-of-its-kind task force in 2021. Dedicated to developing strategies for addressing adverse consequences within the court system, the task force spent three years bringing trauma education to the judiciary—aiming to create a more responsive court to the lived reality of those who have experienced childhood trauma.

North Carolina Judicial College faculty members Sara DePasquale and Jacquelyn Greene were asked to serve as members of the task force’s advisory board as subject matter experts. The two attended meetings, reviewed progress, provided support and advising to members, and worked on implementing some of the task force’s outcomes.

As experts in child welfare and juvenile justice, DePasquale and Greene saw the opportunity to advise the task force as a natural extension of their work at the School of Government to educate and prepare judicial officials to properly administer justice.

“The ability of a court system to respond to people who have trauma exposure and who may be responding in ways that are out of the norm—but could be explained by traumatic experiences— can help a court respond most effectively to folks in the courtroom,” Greene said.

The group’s mission was well-defined: to enable “Judicial Branch stakeholders to understand the impact on children of exposure to ACEs at an early age, and to develop strategies for addressing adverse consequences within the court system.” 

Facilitated by the Bolch Judicial Institute of Duke Law School and the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (NCAOC), the task force educated judicial officials about the need for and implementation of trauma-informed methods to improve outcomes for those who are court-involved. Members of the task force included judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, clerks, law enforcement, private attorneys, child advocates, and academic researchers.

The task force’s work was separated into three separate phases, corresponding with its three-year project span.

The first year focused on laying the groundwork to help judicial officials become trauma-informed by helping court officials and staff become more educated through outreach, bench cards, and ongoing training.

During the second year, the task force focused on making courts trauma-informed—initiating and expanding ACES-informed programs for both children and adult actors in the court system and expanding educational resources for judicial branch officials. 

DePasquale and Greene helped create many of these new resources, including two new advanced certifications for district court judges (in child welfare and juvenile justice). NCAOC awards advanced certification to judges who have obtained initial juvenile court certification, continue to preside over child welfare or juvenile delinquency proceedings, and have completed the requisite six courses.

In addition, DePasquale helped create an online training module for building trauma-informed courts and two instructional booklets to help all minors better understand and process their experience within a North Carolina courthouse. One booklet was designed for children ages 11 and under and another for ages 12 and up. As of January 2024, the booklets are available in courthouses throughout the state.

In its third and final year, the task force concluded its work and issued a call to action to judicial stakeholders across the state. The group released its final report in December 2023, providing recommendations for further integration of trauma-informed care in the courtroom. One recommendation is the creation of the Safe Babies Court (SBC) program. DePasquale is now serving on the Advisory Committee for SBC, a program NCAOC will be piloting in select counties. Under this approach to trauma-informed care, children under the age of three and their families in the child welfare system receive access to timely, needed intensive support, resources, and check-ins from the court.

In reflection of the task force’s work, DePasquale expressed optimism that a court system that is informed and understanding of the citizens it aims to serve will improve the experiences of not just those with ACEs, but all court users in the state.

“It helps everyone within the justice system when the courts are more user-friendly. We want to make the environment of court more approachable and empathetic to users of the court,” she said. “Judges can be leaders in setting that tone and making sure court system actors are taking care of themselves.”