(l-r) Judge J. Corpening; Ben David, district attorney, New Hanover County; Chief Justice Paul Newby; Judge Andrew Heath, executive director, Administrative Office of the Courts of the Chief Justice's ACEs Informed Courts Task Force. David and Heath serve as Task Force co-chairs.
“There is not any more important work going on in the State of North Carolina,” said Ben David, District Attorney for New Hanover County and co-chair of the Chief Justice’s ACEs-Informed Task Force . The Task force is nearing the end of two years dedicated to infusing the science and understanding of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) into the court system of North Carolina.
“We have visited all 100 counties, and 102 court houses, and we’ve learned that one size does not fit all in helping all counties create ACEs–informed courts,” said Chief Justice Paul Newby, who announced the work of the Task Force in May 2021.
“We are encouraged by the work. Year one we gathered information; year two we are putting our work into action,” said Judge Andrew Heath, executive director of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and co-chair of the Task Force.
In a statewide meeting to update their work, attendees included representatives from county government, healthcare, mental health, business, youth serving organizations, media, and a nonprofit serving people with developmental and other disabilities.
“What we are doing with this task force is bringing a great many disciplines together, focusing on the treatment of kids so they don’t have to grow up choosing bad relationships and drugs. We marry science and the law,” said David. The emphasis is on breaking down silos and having organizations from different sectors work together to develop an ecosystem of prevention and healing programs.
Laneita Williamson, trauma informed care manager at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Hospital, gave an in-depth account of the last 10 years of integrating trauma-informed practices into the hospital.
“Before starting this work, the importance of trauma-informed care was not understood,” she said. “The many benefits of the patients needing this type of care had not been heard in a system where it takes a lot of noise to be heard.”
Williamson recounted the story of a trauma surgeon who dismissed the notion of trauma-informed care, despite her explanation that trauma-informed care really has to do with the safety of all people in a hospital: patients, nurses, doctors, housekeeping, administrators and security.
“I’ve heard it said that using trauma-informed practices is just an excuse to describe people’s ‘bad behavior’”, explained Williamson, who has trained thousands of nurses, medical students and physicians. “But people need to understand that trauma is an invisible brain injury. Just because we don’t see the abuse and the injury from that doesn’t mean it is not there.”
She has always emphasized the importance of professionals “learning about themselves, how you react, when you need self-care, when you need to step away, when you are able to come back.”
When people are resistant to integrating practices and policies based on ACEs science, they usually say they “aren’t comfortable talking about trauma with patients,” or “there isn’t enough time” or “there isn’t any financial gain in doing this,” or “I am afraid I will hurt my patients more.” But Williamson says professionals are usually surprised to learn that none of those assumptions are accurate. “Trauma-informed care “actually increases – and saves – time,” she said.
Educating Teens about Healthy Relationships
Quintin McGee, a New Hanover County public defender, and Amber Bellamy, a health educator specialist, reported on the “Success Sequence Program” in Columbus County.
There’s a good reason for implementing the program, explained McGee: “If you stay in high school and maintain full time employment, and wait until you are married to have children, there is an 80 percent chance that you will avoid poverty.”
Using a program called “Love Notes” offered by The Dibble Institute, McGee and Bellamy work with teens from the Boys and Girls Home in Columbus County. They teach them “relationship smarts and sexual health, and how to make right and informed decisions,” said Bellamy. “We focus on what’s affecting them, including cyberbullying and sexting. The classes have a male and female facilitator and they are very open.”
The 13-week program encourages students to “Dream Big,” and ends with a Dream Big banquet where students tell attendees what their plans and visions are.
“Columbus County is rural. It is the 96th most unhealthy county in the state. We are hoping with this program we can change that, by helping students learn ‘who I am and where I am going,’ said McGee. “Kids are blunt. I am amazed by how sincere they are, their knowledge. It is so important that they be exposed to this positive environment.”
In Robeson County, two former educators and counselors came out of retirement to help share the Love Notes curriculum with students there. Sibyl Farr and Mazie Gibson have a combined 80+ years of education and counseling experience among them, but said they could not stay in retirement knowing how much students today need a trusted adult in their lives.
“We’ve seen the parents bringing their children to the church where we’re doing the work, and we started doing the work with the parents,” said Farr, who would like to see the curriculum made mandatory. “The parents are traumatized themselves. They work separately. But at the end of the 13 weeks, we are seeing that the parents and the children can talk together and can have a trusted connection.”
“It makes all the difference for these girls and their parents to know someone knows what they are going through, and that ‘we are here for you,’” said Gibson.
Safe Babies Courts
Judge Julius H. Corpening of New Hanover County discussed Safe Baby Courts. These courts, which have been adopted in many states, essentially provide a system in which parents accused of child abuse or neglect are asked,”What happened to you?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?” They are offered services such as parenting classes, counseling, job training, housing services, transportation services—anything to help the family get back on its feet.
“We wanted to find a better way to take care of babies, for kids to have a healthy family,” explained Corpening. “We’re piloting Safe Babies Courts, the Zero-to-Three model, to address the root cause. We want to protect that relationship between the baby and the mother.”
“We want mothers to see hope instead of despair, and inspire them to build resilience by helping them bond with their babies, with intensive reunification when a baby is taken from a mother at birth,” he said.
- Mike Silver, training and services director for the AOC, said “Our program was recently granted unlimited use of the documentary, ‘Resilience: The Biology of Stress & The Science of Hope’. The film’s producers are so impressed by the number of screenings we are doing.”
- The School-Justice Partnership has reduced court referrals by 60 percent the first year, by giving schools the ability to help kids who were acting out because of trauma instead of sending them into the justice system.
- Kevin Leonard, executive director of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, and Amber Faith Harris, director of government relations for the association, provided an opioid settlement update. They also provided resources to help counties seek and manage these funds.
With the North Carolina General Assembly in session, David reminded Task Force members of the need to “leave a legacy on our legislative priorities.” Two ways to do that are to request a research study on the courts’ progress, and a staff position to help administer Safe Baby Courts.
For more information about the North Caroina Chief Justice's ACEs Informed Courts Task Force, contact Mike Silver, training and services director, North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts.
Additional resources may be found at the links below:
- ACEs-Informed Courts Bench Card
- 2021 Virtual Fatherhood Engagement Series
- Building a Resilient and Trauma-Informed North Carolina - NCIOM
- Healthy Communities NC