Trauma has become one of the leading topics of discussion in the world of child support. More offices are beginning to recognize that being a trauma informed individual will lead to better outcomes for their child support clients. That’s why sessions like the one I was able to attend at the ERICSA conference are so important. Judge J.H. Corpening II’s ERICSA session, Trauma and You, It’s a Game Changer, helped session attendees to learn to recognize trauma in child support and beyond. It was definitely time well spent. He took us through his journey from a traditional hard-nosed judge to being trauma informed.
Shifting Our Mindsets
In Judge Corpening’s home state of North Carolina over 60% of youth are exposed to abuse, neglect, or other trauma before the age of 17. These occurrences are not simply passing events. Studies show that traumatic experiences can lead to increases in depression, suicide, COPD, and drug use. People process trauma exposure differently, and it affects people differently. Consequently, survivors of traumatic experiences can be imprinted for the rest of their lives. Recognizing signs of trauma in clients can help everyone be a better listener. This can truly make a difference in making individuals feel safe instead of re-traumatizing them.
I believe this trauma-informed mindset pairs perfectly with the recent name change at the federal level from Office of Child Support ENFORCEMENT (OCSE) to Office of Child Support SERVICES (OCSS). Caseworkers and judges are shifting to understand the roots of the problems parties in the case face rather than meeting them at an aggressive level. I believe in the past, and in many cases in our current world, aggression is met with aggression. To truly understand someone who is frustrated, it is important to take a breath, listen, and understand the trauma that is causing their outburst. You cannot get to the root of the problem by meeting them at the same level.
Judge Corpening presented several ways to help everyone be more trauma informed and better equipped to work with frustrated clients. SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) gave the following list of what a trauma informed program/organization/system can do:
- Realize widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery.
- Recognize signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system.
- Respond by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices.
- Resist re-traumatization.
Being Trauma-Informed Can Help to Make Better Connections
He also gave the advice to seek first to understand, then be understood. A conversation is not a conversation if you are not fully hearing them out. Actively listen before responding so they know they are truly heard. Remaining calm and patient during the conversation is also important. Know that the aggressive tone or language is not being directed at you, it is likely coming from a previous traumatic event. When you are working towards ending the conversation, be transparent. Lying and partial truths will only make the situation worse.
One final component of ensuring a positive outcome is finding a way to “break the ice.” Know that even though this is just another day for you at your job, this is likely a day that the parties have been dreading since they were notified. The courtroom is an intimidating place to be for those that do not work there every day. Judge Corpening says he tries to start every case that he hears with a friendly greeting. When he responds to the case, he makes a strong effort to keep things positive by using lines such as:
- Your commitment really shows
- It’s clear you are trying to change
- I can see you are confused
- I can hear you are frustrated
- It sounds like you are saying..
- I look forward to hearing good things when we come back together
Applying the Mindset to Our Everyday Lives
I am not a frontline worker in the world of child support, but many of the ideas presented by Judge Corpening should be applied to our everyday lives. Almost everyone has experienced trauma at different levels in their life. I think many of us would consider the pandemic of 2020 traumatic in one way or another! Using some of these ideas when we have difficult encounters will help us become better listeners and possibly make a difference in someone’s life who is struggling. So, let’s all take to heart some of these ideas and do our best to listen, understand, improve, and not re-traumatize those that are struggling.
Chad Trudell is Vice President of Courtland, if you would like to read more from Chad, click here.