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ACEs, Part II: Addressing Adverse Childhood Experiences in the courtroom

NC Courts

The North Carolina court system is moving towards becoming trauma-informed. In 2021, Chief Justice Paul Newby established a judicial system task force to recognize the impacts of adverse childhood experiences. That’s based on an ACE score, determined by how respondents answer 10 questions about difficult experiences like homelessness, violence, and emotional and sexual abuse.

You can find Part I of this series here and Part III of the series here.

Ben David, the district attorney for New Hanover and Pender counties, co-chairs Newby’s task force. He said if the community doesn’t intervene to respond to ACEs, these children can grow into adults who have maladaptive behaviors.

David joined the Chief Justice along with Andrew Heath to announce the Task Force
NC Courts
David joined the Chief Justice along with Andrew Heath to announce the Task Force

“Sixty-two percent of our IV drug users in Wilmington have an ACE score of five or higher. 70% more likely to be a victim or a defendant in a criminal justice case that involves violence if you answer four or more of those questions yes,” David said.

But it's important to note that experts say having a high ACE score does not pre-determine someone’s destiny. If there is at least one positive adult in a child’s life that can change their trajectory, according to J. Corpening, chief district court judge for New Hanover and Pender counties. He said the time for the courts to be trauma-informed is now.

“Fifteen years ago, we didn't understand. And of course, then we didn't respond. And until we have learned to ask them the 'What happened to you?' question — instead of starting with 'What did you do? — until we seek first to understand what root causes are, then we're never going to effectively respond to behavior. And our goal is to change the behavior for the better,” Corpening said.

While Corpening said knowledge about ACEs is increasing, there’s still a way to go.

“I was just in a room with about 60 lawyers and I asked, how many of you have heard of ACEs study out of San Diego, California? About 15 out of 60 raised their hands, so that meant I was in the right room at the right time,” he said.

David added the stakes are high if ACEs are not addressed.

“We know that because of the trauma that they've experienced, statistically speaking, if we do nothing to help them, they're going to be today's victim, but tomorrow's defendant and we want to be better by our kids than that,” David said.

Related: Pender County is getting a new public defender office, but the profession remains challenging

David recalled an example of reconnecting with someone from the community who he decided needed treatment options rather than the maximum sentence.

“A mom with two kids approached me at a gas station, who said, ‘You might not remember me, but I broke into three different cars, and I had a terrible drug addiction, and you sent me to drug treatment court. I've been clean for seven years, and I want you to meet my kids,’” David said.

Understanding people, but also holding them accountable

Amelia Thorn is a professor at Duke Law School and the assistant director at Duke’s Bolch Judicial Institute, which focuses on judicial innovation and reform. She, too, serves on the state task force.

“This movement is really about understanding people and not excusing people, [it's] at the heart of onboarding judges,” Thorn said.

Thorn agrees with David in that the best way to be “tough on crime” is when they would see “fewer and fewer repeat offenders coming through our courthouse doors, once we start using some of these trauma-informed practices because we're getting to the root of the problem.”

But there are hurdles to overcome to shift the judicial system to a more trauma-informed approach. A major obstacle is confronting the idea that factoring in ACEs will essentially condone violent behavior.

David said a trauma-informed court isn’t about excusing criminal behavior, but preventing repeat offenses — which puts the community at increased risk.

“Ninety-eight percent of all people that we're putting into jails and prison are getting out one day, and a full two out of three are back in that jail cell within three years under the current rates of recidivism. And so what I've seen through the fullness of time, is that if we don't treat the underlying root causes of crime, then we're not adequately protecting the community. We have to reduce the barriers to re-entry, understanding that a lot of what we see in the criminal justice system is non-violent,” David said.

However, he said, that there will continue to be a minority of cases where it’s a “lock them up and throw away the key moment.”

A trauma-informed 'bench card'

Thorn said the task force has created what they call a trauma-informed bench card. This is a document judges will refer to when they’re hearing a case.

“Some of them are more communications oriented, active listening, things as simple as nodding, reflective listening, showing the person in front of you that you hear them by reflecting back what they're saying, [...] sort of being willing to ask open-ended questions about the person in front of you,” Thorn said.

Thorn said the bench card also addresses the sometimes confusing world of court scheduling. Courts don't always give exact times for individual cases; people involved in multiple cases are often told to show up at a certain time and then wait for their turn. People can wait hours for a short hearing — but missing the start of your particular case can have serious repercussions.

“Is it necessary for everyone to come in at 9:00 a.m. and wait to be called? Or are there ways that you can stagger your schedule so that you can give people a closer estimation of time to when their case might actually come up?" she said.

The bench card also addresses the reality that, while waiting for their turn in court, people — especially young children — can be exposed to some gritty realities.

“If you know that there's going to be a discussion in front of the group of people in the courtroom that might be traumatic for especially young children to hear maybe you can say that at the outset and ask folks if they wouldn't mind leaving the courtroom and coming back later after this testimony,” she added.

Putting your own oxygen mask on first

Another issue with those who work in the criminal justice system — is the idea of “putting your oxygen mask on first.”

David said one of the top recommendations from the local judicial task force made up of police, prosecutors, judges, and public defenders is that “we have to take care of ourselves before we're taking care of anyone else. When we're having a bad day that shows up when we're burned out, we're committing malpractice, we're the ones using force on the street. So from a standpoint of ‘Thou shalt not’, or ‘Do no harm;’ it's no question that self-care matters.”

He added that “I mean, wouldn't we want them to take a vacation, get eight hours of sleep, have a gym where they can exercise and let off stress in the best way, rather than going to drugs themselves? Of course, we would want [self-care] to be a priority.”

Starting this summer, all newly sworn-in district court judges in the state will have access to a full day of training on the brain science of trauma – and how to make their courtrooms more trauma-informed.


Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR