Trauma-informed Treatment Courts: Translating Knowledge into Action

Which clients in your treatment court have a history of trauma? How can you find out? Why does it matter? While the conversation about the prevalence and devastating effects of trauma has become increasingly open in justice settings, many treatment courts may be blind to it in their own programs or simply hope that good intentions will prevent further trauma. Perhaps now is the time to self-reflect as a treatment court and to take small, but meaningful actions right now.


According to SAMHSA, “Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or a set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being, (2014a, p. 7).” Trauma experiences can diminish the ability of treatment court participants to engage in programs and long-term recovery. So, what does it mean for organizations to be trauma-informed? First, in order for treatment court programs to fully embody a trauma-informed system of care, all program staff must:


1. Have a basic realization of the origins of trauma and the impact this can have on individuals, families, groups, and communities.
2. Be able to recognize the signs of trauma in individuals.
3. Continuously assess the ways in which policies, procedures, and practices should be revised in order to allow staff to respond to individuals appropriately.
4. Resist engaging in action(s) that may result in re-traumatization.


In addition, SAMHSA (2014a) identifies six key principles that should serve as the foundation for developing your trauma-informed systems of care.


1. Safety (this is #1 for a reason) – above all else, participants’ physical & emotional safety should be promoted in all settings & through all interactions. Individuals (i.e., staff and participants) who do not feel safe will not fully engage.
2. Trustworthiness & Transparency – treatment court operations should be transparent and conducted with an eye toward developing and maintaining mutual trust between and among stakeholders and participants.
3. Peer Support – incorporating peer recovery support specialists into your treatment court program is an effective way for individuals with lived experience to assist participants in their recovery.
4. Collaboration & Mutuality – recognizing and acknowledging that all treatment court team members and participants have unique roles/responsibilities is key to developing collaborative relationships based on mutuality and respect.
5. Empowerment, Voice, & Choice – treatment court team members look for opportunities to empower participants to make decisions and have a voice in their recovery.
6. Cultural, Historical, & Gender Issues – the treatment court program provides participants with access to clinical and recovery support services that are responsive to their cultural, racial/ethnic, and gender needs.


A good place to start moving toward being a trauma-informed treatment court is to screen participants for trauma exposure to determine which individuals are in need of a more thorough assessment and trauma-specific services. Several screening and assessment tools have been validated with justice-involved populations; a sample list is attached. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and note that separate tools have been developed for youth (Collaborative for Change, 2016) and adults (SAMHSA, 2015). Many of these tools are free, while some charge a nominal fee.


To conduct a screen sensitively that will yield valid responses, it is recommended that programs “take the time to prepare and explain the screening and assessment process to the client gives him or her a greater sense of control and safety over the assessment process.” (SAMHSA, 2014b, p. 94). Be prepared to reassess individuals as they grow more willing to disclose information over time.


In the coming months, Beyond the Field entries will periodically highlight literature on trauma-informed practices for different components of treatment courts, including drug testing, courtroom set-up and structure, team dynamics, use of language, and providing participants opportunities to have a voice and make choices.


Collaborative for Change. (2016). Trauma Among Youth in the Juvenile Justice System. Retrieved from
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2014a). SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4884.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014b). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series 57. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 13-4801.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Screening and Assessment of Co-occurring Disorders in the Justice System. HHS Publication No. PEP19-SCREEN-CODJS. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Written by Drs. Kristen DeVall & Sally MacKain

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