Engagement of Victims in Juvenile and Family Courts

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By Shawn C. Marsh, Ph.D. and Kelly Ranasinghe, J.D., C.W.L.S.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than three million children were reported to authorities for abuse or neglect in 2012, with approximately two million of those cases receiving a response by Child Protective Services. Further, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance reports that in 2013 U.S. residents age 12 or older experienced an estimated 6.1 million violent victimizations. Although it is not clear how many of these victims came in direct contact with juvenile and family courts, it is likely a substantial portion experience at least some contact with the justice system. Before appropriate services for victims can be coordinated by justice system professionals, it is necessary to identify who is a victim and to what degree has the experience of victimization impacted their functioning across physiological, psychological and social domains. Although identification and engagement is seemingly an easy task, in reality, it is more complex than many imagine. From a public health perspective, however, the payoff is substantial – and there are numerous ways to help victims. For example, in cases where victims develop traumatic stress reactions, there are myriad evidence-based treatments (e.g., trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy) that can promote healing and limit future victimization. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) presents common challenges to appropriate engagement of victims in the justice system.

Challenge #1: Victims neither seen nor heard. Victims of crimes or other traumatic experiences might not come to the attention of the justice system because they do not come forward to authorities. A victim may also not have the capacity or ability to come forward (e.g., in the case of child experiencing abuse or neglect, intimidation in cases of domestic violence, etc.). Further, some victims might not know that the behavior or event they are subjected to is considered a crime, or victims in rural environments may find it difficult to report crime or seek help due to physical isolation. These realities speak to the importance of strong education for judges and allied court professionals on the signs of trauma and the importance of screening protocols.

Challenge #2: Victims seen but not heard. Even when a traumatic or adverse past is revealed or discovered, victims still face challenges. Ultimately, knowing one has a history of victimization is a necessary but not sufficient step in offering and coordinating indicated support. This is moving beyond understanding the symptomatology of victims; it also is considering the nuances of how experiences might impact the presentation of victims and giving voice to the victim about what they want and need. Asking “What happened to you – and how can we help?” is critical to ensuring victims are truly heard and provided maximum opportunity for self-determination.

Challenge #3: Victims resist or inconsistently engage in services. When victims are identified and indicate a desire for help, matching them with appropriate services can be difficult. This is not surprising. The court system was originally structured to function as an institution devoted to maintaining social order by providing dispute resolution mechanisms. In addition, many areas simply do not have the capacity to handle the many people who are referred to services by the court. Further, one remarkably persistent myth is that victims are automatically inclined to pursue treatment at all. It is important to remember that an arrest, the intervention of the court or the presence of a victim advocate does not alleviate all (or any) of the victim’s socio-economic and even psychological pressures to maintain the status quo. Many new professionals to the criminal justice field are struck by the initial reaction of a victim-client who they are there to help. In many instances, a victim’s reaction to intervention may range from dismissal\minimization to outright hostility and aggressiveness.

Challenge #4: Victims as offenders. The reality is that there is often a blurred line regarding victimization when dealing with offenders in court. Studies suggest, for example, that upwards of 90% of youth involved in the deep end of the juvenile justice system have some history of trauma or adverse events, with many demonstrating symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A core difficulty when working with these trauma victims who are also juvenile offenders are the diametrically different ways the court approaches treatment. For the majority of offenders in the juvenile justice system, an integral therapeutic goal of their probation is acknowledging the harm that they have inflicted upon others and taking responsibility for their actions. On the other hand, an integral part of trauma-focused treatment is ensuring the victim acknowledges her own trauma and victimization and understanding that the violence, abuse or trauma was not her fault. Accordingly, many courts struggle with victims that also can be offenders. Sometimes there is a reluctance to view victim-offenders as “injured” versus victim or offender. Indeed, this can be a difficult balance to strike, but is seen as critical to helping modify future offending behavior or being placed at risk for additional victimization.

Few will argue there are a substantial number of victims that likely come in contact with juvenile and family courts. Identification of those victims presents challenges, and even when identified, there are myriad considerations in assessing the degree to which services are needed and desired. Even when victims agree to participate in support, there are further challenges to matching services to need, assisting victims to remain engaged in services, and more holistically viewing injured parties. Trauma-informed courts, however, are a critical component in the healing community, and awareness of the dynamic and challenges outlined here are important to responding appropriately to victims – whether or not they develop traumatic stress reactions. To that end, the position of the NCJFCJ in regards to treatment of victims, as adopted by the Board of Directors via resolution in July 2012 as part of the Project ONE Key Principles, states:

All children, youth, families and communities deserve a justice system that promotes the safety and empowerment of victims. The need for information, efficiency and compliance must be weighed against the need for confidentiality. To empower victims, courts and other stakeholders should respect victim autonomy related to service access and process, as well as provide all relief allowable under law while meeting a broad array of safety, socioeconomic and community restoration needs. In domestic violence cases, victim autonomy related to decisions to leave a relationship or reunify should be emphasized whenever possible. Courts should treat the safety of children and adult victims of domestic violence with equal regard, and practice should demonstrate the understanding that the best interests, safety and resiliency of children are inextricably linked to the health, safety and welfare of their battered parent.

This post was published in conjunction with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

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