This blog is a first in a series of three, over the coming weeks, in which we will explore how an understanding of the impacts of childhood trauma can improve the effectiveness of judges and court programs.

Magistrate Pauline Spencer writes…

The wonderful thing about Therapeutic Jurisprudence (TJ) is that it invites us to draw from the social sciences to improve how we conduct our courts and court programs and how we carry out our judicial roles.  Because various fields of study – psychology, criminology, social work and the like – are constantly evolving so to can TJ practices.

One such field study is the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (the ACE Study).  This study was conducted by the American organisations Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People were recruited to the study in 1995-7 and their health outcomes were tracked over time.

The study showed a clear link between childhood trauma or “adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)” and a range of health and social problems across the person’s life.

ACEs may include physical, sexual or emotional abuse, exposure to family violence, neglect, household substance abuse and/or mental illness, imprisonment of a parent and the like.

The impacts of ACEs include:

  • social, emotional and cognitive impairment
  • adoption of health risk behaviours
  • disease, disability and social problems; and
  • early death

The ACE Study produced an ACEs questionnaire from which an ACEs score can be obtained.  The higher the score the higher the probability of certain impacts.  For example people with an ACE score of 4 are twice as likely to be smokers and seven times more likely to be alcoholic and have a 400 percent risk of emphysema or chronic bronchitis and attempted suicide by 1200 percent.  People with an ACE score of 6 or higher are at risk of their lifespan being shortened by 20 years.

It is important to note that these impacts are risks rather than certainties.  Positive interventions and/or other positive life circumstances can help build the resilience to make outcomes less probable in a person’s life.   This helps us to understand why some people who have experienced the same types of childhood traumas do better than others and reinforces the need for courts to ensure that we are providing links to appropriate interventions.

In my work as a magistrate with people with addictions I do not find these findings surprising, it is sadly all too common to hear about people’s traumatic childhoods as their story unfolds in court.   A better understanding of the ACEs study however has prompted me to think about how the study and trauma informed practice may improve the effectiveness of my judicial role.  Over the next two blogs, two great TJ thinkers, Professor David Wexler and Judge (Ret) Peggy Hora will explore how ACEs can deepen our TJ practice.

Learn more about the ACE Study….

TED Talk: How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime.

NPR Article: Take the ACEs quiz

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ACE Study Website

BlueKnot Foundation – Different types of trauma and their impacts

3 thoughts on “ACES: Deepening Therapeutic Jurisprudence Practice in Courts

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