Making court a better place for traumatized kids

Nonprofit's model courtroom is designed to avoid intimidating children

By Heather Cobun
The Daily Record Newswire

BALTIMORE - A courtroom is an intimidating place for adults and can be even more distressing for children, whether are moving through the juvenile justice system or watching parents get divorced.

Though judges are accustomed to seeing children in court, they often do not have training in child development to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma, according to Frank Kros, executive vice president of The Children's Guild, a Baltimore-based nonprofit serving children with trauma disorders.

Kros gave the keynote address at a family law symposium held in June at the University of Baltimore School of Law, focusing on transforming children's experiences in Maryland courtrooms. More than 50 judges attended his presentation, and Kros said he attempted to educate them on the latest research on trauma and its effect on youth.

"My goal first was to make judges aware that the vast majority of kids that they're going to see in court have had one or more traumatic experiences," said Kros, who is also and president of the Upside Down Organization, the external training arm of The Children's Guild.

Trauma in childhood is highly correlated with adolescent violence, delinquency, conduct disorder and other behaviors, according to Kros' presentation. Nearly 3 million child abuse cases are reported each year, but experts estimate the actual number of instances of abuse to be three times that amount.

Trauma and family law

It's a common misconception that children of divorce will develop behavioral problems, struggle academically or otherwise fall behind children of intact families, according to Kros.

Still, children who observe or even participate in family law actions can be traumatized by the experience, especially if they are required to testify.

"Kids aren't stupid," Kros said. "They know that testimony is going to result in decisions that will have a big impact on their relationship with their parents."

Kros said he urges courts to conduct an educational session before beginning proceedings involving children. The process and players can be explained and the child can have questions answered in a more informal atmosphere.

"All those things together we think are very positive tools in avoiding the re-traumatization of kids," he said.

Judges and attorneys think of court as their workplace, Kros said, and forget that it can be an intimidating place.

Kros watched hours of courtroom proceedings, both in person and on video, to learn more about how people acted in court.

"I was really struck by just how powerfully intimidating and stressful the experience is for most people and how uncomfortable people are when they're there," he said.

Making court 'kid friendly'

Even with the process explained, Kros said the physical appearance of a courtroom is designed to be intimidating.

When Kros proposed making a "kid-friendly courtroom" in Maryland, he was told no judge would want to be the first to have one. After someone recommended building a model courtroom somewhere that people could see what Kros envisioned, one was added to the Children's Guild.

From lowering the judge's bench to adding a quiet play area in the back of the room, the room is designed to avoid intimidating children, according to Kros. The model courtroom also does away with rigid benches and instead puts chairs on wheels to allow for flexible seating.

(The room, modeled after a courtroom in Prince George's County, was designed as if an existing courtroom had been overhauled to be "kid-friendly," which hypothetically would keep down costs if such a courtroom were to ever become a reality.)

When children are involved, the courtroom should be about cooperation and problem-solving, according to Kros.

Continuing education

Kros said a tool developed for judges also assists them in court by telling them what to look for in children based on their age, such as: "What should you be looking for in the behavior of a three-year -old? What can a three-year-old tell you?"

Kros said he has given several presentations to attorneys and judges about the impacts of trauma on children in court and said he has found everyone eager to learn more, particularly if they work with children regularly.

"I think there's a corps of Maryland's judges who are really anxious and ready to move in this area," he said.

After his keynote address in June, Kros said he heard anecdotes from judges that related to his topic.

"I think that my sense was of course they deal with this every day but the language that it was put in and the science behind how devastating this trauma is helped them make some connections between what they see and why they're seeing it," he said.

Published: Mon, Aug 24, 2015