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Guidance for trauma-responsive virtual hearings is now available

Guidance for trauma-responsive virtual hearings is now available

Virtual dependency hearings can be responsive to trauma and provide psychological, physical, and emotional safety if parties are fully engaged with the judge and the process, according to an NCSC study released last month.

Facilitating Trauma-Responsive Virtual Hearings for Dependency Cases discusses how new traumatic experiences can be avoided if the court carefully considers technology, facilitates open and clear communication, and sets realistic expectations.

“Virtual hearings are here to stay, and the court community has a responsibility to make sure the technology is used in a way that supports families' access to justice, meaningful hearings, and trauma-informed practices,” said Teri Deal, an NCSC principal court management consultant. “We know that court hearings can sometimes be trauma triggers for families. Many courts are still working through applying trauma-informed practices in person, and this document is intended to help them consider how to apply them in virtual spaces as well.”

The new guidance includes the following tips:

  • Ask parties for their location.
  • Allow and acknowledge support people.
  • Explain how an individual can communicate with their attorney during the hearing.
  • Be intentional about camera placement.
  • Change names on screen to include first and last name and role in the case.

“This guidance is different because it presents the recommendations through the lens of trauma-informed care,” Deal said. “Several recommendations to this point have been focused on the technology and the procedural considerations of remote hearings. This guidance adds to that by considering not only the infrastructure and processes, but also acknowledging how to create a virtual environment that intentionally promotes the psychological safety of the participants.”

Consultants examined the experience of families, judges, and court professionals in virtual child welfare proceedings in five states and observed more than 400 virtual hearings during this study. Information was collected from adolescents, parents, judges, case workers, and attorneys.

Sarah Burns was one of the court professionals who participated in the study while working for the Spokane Superior Court. Now a statewide innovation coordinator at the Washington Administrative Office of the Courts, Burns is currently examining virtual hearing needs for the state’s 39 non-unified (or decentralized) courts.

“The majority of our courts transitioned really quickly,” she said, adding courts that really shined used technology to implement time-certain calendaring and improved processes for settlement conferences.

While technology has improved some aspects of dependency proceedings, Burns said courts are now faced with addressing new challenges like the digital divide and changes in the way parties informally and formally interact with each other.

“There is access to justice and then there is good access to justice,” she said.

Learn more about how to facilitate trauma-responsive virtual hearings for dependency cases by reading the full publication.