Trauma-Informed Spaces and Courtrooms

When you go into a court you don’t know what’s going on because you’re terrified. There are guns, they’ve got you chained up, and you’re under the influence. All these things are happening at once. — Trauma Survivor (SAMHSA et al., 2013).
 
People who have experienced trauma can be easily and suddenly overwhelmed, hypersensitive to sounds, confined spaces and objects. They may reflexively respond to these as life-threatening and can’t attend to or remember essential court proceeding or treatment-related information.
 
The field of Environmental Psychology studies how the physical environment, such as building design, floorplans, signage, and other features of buildings impact our behavior. Designs that provide privacy and a sense of safety are ideally suited for people who have experienced trauma (Garcia, 2020).
 
Of course, few courts, probation departments, treatment providers, etc. have the luxury of designing their own buildings. However, SAMHSA and other collaborators (2013) compiled tips for treatment court professionals that can help prevent or offset negative impacts of these often-intimidating spaces and promote a sense of safety and respect in participants. They highlight aspects of the physical environment that treatment courts can consider without great expense or delay.
 
Does your courtroom have seating that provides easy access to aisles and exits? If not, can seats be reserved near aisles? Where does the judge sit? DO they loom above the court, making eye contact and respectful connection difficult? Are people placed in handcuffs and shackled where all in attendance can see? Are the bathrooms where drug tests take place well lit? Is there a space where people can get some privacy if they need a space to calm down? Is the signage posted respectful? OR does it just instruct people what NOT to do?
 
The article provides a table that describes potential triggers in the environment, the possible reactions of a trauma survivor, and a more trauma-informed approach that treatment courts may take. According to Garcia (2020), “The goal of trauma-informed design is to create environments that promote a sense of calm, safety, dignity, empowerment, and well-being for all occupants. These outcomes can be achieved by adapting spatial layout, thoughtful furniture choices, visual interest, light and color, art, and biophilic design.” It would behoove treatment court teams to assess the physical spaces where participants engage in program-related activities with a critical eye toward minimizing trauma.

References: 

Garcia, A.M. (September 4, 2020). Empathy in Architecture: Using Trauma-Informed Design to Promote Healing. Environments 4 Health Architecture.  https://e4harchitecture.com/empathy-in-architecture-using-trauma-informed-design-to-promote-healing/
 
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, SAMHSA’s National Center on Trauma-Informed Care and SAMHSA’s National GAINS Center for Behavioral Health and Justice, (2013). Essential Components of Trauma Informed Judicial Practice. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.  https://www.nasmhpd.org/sites/default/files/DRAFT_Essential_Components_of_Trauma_Informed_Judicial_Practice.pdf
 

Written by Drs. Kristen DeVall & Sally MacKain

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