DMH Hosts Training for Trauma-Informed Criminal Justice System Responses

A diverse group of professionals gathered at the Department of Mental Health Central Office recently for a two-day training on trauma-informed care in the criminal justice system.

The training was conducted by Chan Noether, director of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) GAINS Center for Behavioral Health and Justice Transformation and Joel Botner with Policy Research Associates. The participants included clinicians, crisis response professionals, criminal justice professionals, and even an investigator in the Attorney General’s office.

This train-the-trainer program, titled “How Being Trauma-Informed Improves Criminal Justice System Responses,” aimed to provide participants with an understanding of trauma, an awareness of how trauma impacts behavior and the tools to train other professionals in developing trauma-informed responses.

“When we look at the prevalence of trauma, there are some pretty staggering statistics,” said Chan Noether, Director of SAMHSA’s GAINS Center for Behavioral Health and Justice Transformation.

The data he shared in the training stated that up to 90 percent of people have at least one traumatic event in their lifetimes, and rates are higher than 90 percent for people who have a serious mental illness. In one study conducted through mental health courts, up to 67 percent of women had endured childhood physical abuse, and up to 73 percent of men had endured the same. There were similarly high rates of psychological abuse as well.

Noether said those statistics reminded him of the well-known William Falkner quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Trauma can be complex when caused by physical neglect or abuse, or it can be caused by a single event like a natural disaster or serious accident. Trauma can be historical, caused by pervasive issues that affect entire communities, like devastating poverty that can lead to grief and anger issues. Trauma can also arise from exposure to witnessing traumatic events happen to others. Known as secondary trauma, this can happen with health care providers, law enforcement, first responders, ministers, and those in the criminal justice system.

What makes trauma even more complicated is how unique it is for every individual.  The exact same experience may be traumatic for one, but not another because every individual has a different view of what is normal and a different level of resilience for overcoming adversity.  Lastly, trauma has a much more long-lasting impact on those who experience trauma at an early age as the associated extreme fear or state of hyperarousal can permanently alter a child’s under-developed brain.

“This is not affecting just some subset of the population. This is a lot of folks,” Botner said.

While many people may cope or heal effectively, others “get stuck” in dealing with their issues. The effects of that can be as long-lasting as affecting someone’s ability to keep a job or raise children. Sometimes people try to cope ineffectively, such as through drugs, which can even cause more trauma.

“Does trauma have a cumulative effect? Oh yeah, sure,” Botner said during his presentation.

Trauma-informed criminal justice responses can help to avoid re-traumatizing individuals, and thereby increase safety for all, decrease recidivism, and promote and support recovery of justice-involved women and men with serious mental illness.

“Being trauma-informed intersects with all of these silos and areas where we work,” Botner said.

One key concept the training discussed repeatedly is that behaviors exhibited by  trauma victims are often a result of what they perceive as necessary for survival. For many traumatized people, certain behaviors are learned defense mechanisms that equal survival.  People with a history of violence may have adopted the aggressive behavior of a predator to break the cycle of always being easy prey. Self-harm is often the result of depression and suicidal thoughts. Flashbacks or panic attacks could be manifestations of the extreme fear and anxiety created during a previously lived experience.

Participants in this train-the-trainer event were charged with disseminating this training throughout their workplaces and communities in order to develop trauma-informed responses aimed at increasing safety, decreasing incidents of re-traumatization, and reducing recidivism.

This training will mean different responses for different professionals. A trauma-informed law enforcement officer may de-escalate a potentially volatile situation because he can recognize behavioral signs of trauma or mental health symptoms and respond accordingly, rather than contribute to individual’s unstable condition with sudden movements and loud commands.  A trauma-informed judge may be more open to consider extenuating circumstances and allow an individual diversion to mental health treatment in delivering a sentence.

Trauma can ultimately lie at the heart of a lot of issues that contribute to a person’s involvement with the criminal justice system, and it deserves appropriate attention. Botner likened trauma to sometimes looking at a river – it may be fast moving, turbulent, and difficult to navigate.

“Look at the surface long enough, and you may be able to tell when there’s something underneath,” he said.



Site designed and developed by Media-Shark Web Development