A Trauma-Informed Court

(October 27, 2023)

During my many years advocating for abused and neglected children in the dependency system, I have seen the fear and concern in their faces when we talked about going to court. Some children associate court with a parent or loved one leaving for a court hearing and not coming back because they were sent directly to jail. For other kids who have only experienced court on television, they would ask me if the judge was going to be mean like “Judge Judy.” These children have already experienced trauma, and the uncertainty of going to court can add to it. For a child, entering the grand building, going through security, and then navigating through the halls with little to no signage would cause significant anxiety and further exacerbate the trauma they were already experiencing. Once they made it to the waiting room, they would see a bleak room filled with old and worn furniture. While there was an option for some children to go to the playroom and wait for their hearing, many of the children were too nervous to be separated from their trusted adult to utilize the “well-loved” space. It is typically not an inviting atmosphere for any child, let alone a child that has endured trauma, has a disability, does not speak English, or who may be neurodivergent.

The Honorable Judge Jennifer McCrady recognized that the courthouse was not supportive to the children and families that it served and launched an initiative to change the status quo. After a trauma audit was conducted and various stakeholders – including youth and families – provided input, the Allegheny County Courts partnered with the Department of Human Services and Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Centered Design graduate class to implement significant changes to improve the space, make it more inviting, and better meet the needs of the children and families who enter the building.

Allies for Children was honored to attend the celebration of the new trauma-informed courthouse on October 16th along with the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Madame Justice Debra Todd, as well as Justice Kevin Doughtery, Allegheny County Judicial staff, funders, and others. When I walked into the courthouse, the first change I noticed was lots of new signage everywhere, including monitors with hearing information such as courtroom number and time statuses. The waiting area was unrecognizable! The walls were painted in soothing colors and the furniture was all replaced. There were little tables equipped with iPads and headphones for children to use while waiting for their hearing. A new dedicated area was created with tons of books, art packs, and comfy seating for children. Thanks to a wonderful partnership with WQED, Daniel Tiger and Friends decorated this area. There were also QR codes on the walls for children and families to scan to take them to PBS Kids for educational games and videos. New charging tables were available, which is critical for children, families, and professionals who can spend upwards of 5 hours waiting for their hearings.

In addition to the much more welcoming, family friendly waiting area, childcare is provided in a safe, fun, and updated space. The secure environment allows adults the opportunity to leave their children in a space that can make you forget you are in a courthouse. The childcare center was clean, beautiful, and very inviting. From play houses and kitchens to toys galore, the children have the opportunity to forget about the stressors that brought them to the courthouse in the first place and just be children and play. Also, within the childcare center, a sensory room was created to serve those with autism. This area has a white noise machine, weighted blankets and vests, and iPads with neurodiverse apps available for use. The courthouse has been very intentional about meeting the needs of individuals with autism and created an Autism Task Force. Another positive outcome from this Task Force is that each courtroom has been equipped with materials and devices to meet these unique needs.

The transformation of this space had me in awe, but that was just the beginning. I was beyond elated to see the new supportive services available right in the courthouse. These children and families face many challenges and barriers that prevent them from meeting all of their needs. There is now a Wellness Clinic, staffed by providers and nurses from Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, located on the ground floor. The Wellness Clinic offers physicals, basic medical care, prescription services, care coordination and family planning. For example, if a family came to the attention of CYF for medical neglect, a judge can send the family downstairs to the clinic to start the process of getting the children up-to-date medically. Unfortunately, children are often moved from one place to another pretty abruptly, which can often lead to pertinent medications getting lost in the shuffle. Caseworkers or families can go to the clinic to get needed prescriptions to avoid a disruption in medical care.

There are many other changes that were made to create this trauma-informed courthouse but I will just highlight a couple more. The court has partnered with external agencies to provide on-site behavioral health assessments, substance use evaluations, service coordination assistance, and crisis response services. Access to language and communication supports are also available. There are “I speak” cards at the courthouse entrances, translated forms, translation services, and interpreter equipment.

Last but certainly not least, this project prioritized treating each and every person that enters the courthouse with dignity and respect in a trauma-informed way. From the security personnel to the judges, each staff person should treat everyone with compassion and empathy. All courthouse personnel received training such as trauma-informed responses, Mental Health First Aid, and motivational interviewing. This training can significantly impact how children and families feel while at the courthouse as well as the outcomes they receive.

This ground-breaking project would not have been possible without the generous donations, grant funding, and foundation support. There are too many benevolent donors to name them all, but I wanted to recognize a few: Staunton Farm Foundations, Hillman Foundation, Grable Foundation, and Richard King Mellon Foundation. Every single penny was needed and vital to this incredible transformation. The dedication to children from each and every funder is evident through their altruism. Judge Eaton, who was the administrative judge during this project, also took a moment to acknowledge that Judge McCrady and her staff worked tirelessly to bring this vision to life. She noted that Judge McCrady and her staff even got their hands dirty painting, moving furniture, and climbing on ladders to hang things. Their remarkable determination will certainly have a lasting impact on the children and families that they serve.

Learn more about the changes at the courthouse:
Allegheny County Courts open new trauma-informed courthouse (WTAE)
KD Sunday Spotlight: Safe Haven inside Allegheny County Family Courthouse (KDKA)
Family Division of the Allegheny County Courthouse Initiates Sensory-Friendly Areas (Autism Connection of Pennsylvania)

Heather Wilkes, Allies for Children Policy Director