Kirsty Dempster-Rivett, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, emphasises the importance of ensuring legal practices are trauma-informed. She will be delving further into this issue at the upcoming webinar, Your Criminal Client: Your Responsibilities on Friday 6 March.
There is considerable research both nationally, and internationally that identifies a link between childhood maltreatment and an increased likelihood to engage in criminal behaviour in adolescence (Davis et al., 2018; Delfabbro, & Day., 2017; Doolan, Najman, Mills, Cherney & Strathearn, 2013; Finklehor et al.,2011). Not surprisingly the prevalence of childhood maltreatment in offending adult populations is considerable (Haugebrook, Zgoba, Maschi, Morgen, & Brown, 2010; Messina, Grella, Burdon, & Prendergast, 2007). For example, Courtney and Maschi (2013) explored the prevalence of abuse in the offending population and found that up to half of the male US prisoners reported childhood physical abuse. Bevan (2017) reported that 68% of New Zealand women and 52% of men prisoners experienced family harm.
Exposure to abuse in its many forms can have detrimental effects on brain development resulting in developmental delays (Teicher & Samson, 2016). Carrion & Wong (2012) suggest the link between traumatic experiences and diminished prefrontal cortex activity may contribute to limited cognitive abilities and emotional reasoning. Thus, experiencing adverse childhood events can result in emotional, social, behavioural and cognitive disruptions in typical human development. For those affected the impacts can be short-term, intermittent in presentation or pervasive across the lifespan (Felitti, Anda, Nordenberg, Williamson, Spitz, Edwards, Koss & Marks, 1998; Gilbert, Widom, Browne, Fergussen, Webb, & Janson, 2009). For example, within the New Zealand context, research has demonstrated that a lifetime post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis was four times higher among prisoners (24%) than in the general population (6%) (Indig, Gear, & Wihlem, 2016). Therefore, it is to be expected that lawyers working with clients who offend will also be working with a considerable number negatively affected by childhood adverse life events.
Trauma-informed practices have been a part of mental health services increasingly over the last decade and more recently within care and protection spaces. However, it is a relatively new approach within services working with offenders (Dempster-Rivett, 2018). Given the prevalence as mentioned earlier of childhood maltreatment in offending populations, it is pertinent for legal professionals to learn strategies to manage affected clients when preparing for court and during appearances. There are internationally identified trauma-informed practice values that have been incorporated into working with offenders (Miller & Najavits, 2012; Tam & Derkzen, 2014) that can readily be drawn upon for lawyers wanting to implement trauma-informed approaches. Thus, providing legal professionals with strategies to reduce the risk of re-traumatization while still being able to progress with the job to ensures the best outcome for all. A key component to this is understanding the neuroscience of trauma and stress and how it can be triggered within the current settings. By understanding such reactions, one can interact in more effective ways and employ de-escalation strategies when required. Being trauma-informed does not mean being equipped to treat people but rather helping identification of when additional therapeutic intervention is required and what treatment options are locally available.
Bevan, M. (2017). New Zealand prisoners’ prior exposure to trauma. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Department of Corrections .
Carrion, V. G., & Wong, S. S. (2012). Can Traumatic Stress Alter the Brain? Understanding the Implications of Early Trauma on Brain Development and Learning. Journal of Adolescent Health, 51(2), S23-S28. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2012.04.010
Courtney, D., & Maschi, T. (2013). Trauma and Stress Among Older Adults in Prison: Breaking the Cycle of Silence. Traumatology, 19(1), 73-81. doi:10.1177/1534765612437378
Davis, K. C., Masters, N. T., Casey, E., Kajumulo, K. F., Norris, J., & George, W. H. (2018). How Childhood Maltreatment Profiles of Male Victims Predict Adult Perpetration and Psychosocial Functioning. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 33(6), 915-937. doi:10.1177/0886260515613345
Delfabbro, P. H., & Day, A. (2017). Child maltreatment and criminal convictions in youth: The role of gender, ethnicity and placement experiences in an Australian population. Children and Youth Services Review, 73, 57-65. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2016.12.001
Dempster-Rivett, K. (2018). Development and implementation of trauma-informed training for women’s corrections facilities in Aotearoa New Zealand. Practice: The New Zealand Corrections Journal, 6(2), 43-46.
Doolan, I., Najman, J. M., Mills, R., Cherney, A., & Strathearn, L. (2013). Does child abuse and neglect explain the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in youth detention? Findings from a birth cohort study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 37(5), 303-309. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2012.12.005
Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., . . . Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245-258. doi:10.1016/S0749-3797(98)00017-8
Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Hamby, S., & Ormrod, R. (2011). Polyvictimization: Children’s exposure to multiple types of violence, crime, and abuse. In Juvenile Justice Bulletin. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Gilbert, R., Widom, C. S., Browne, K., Fergusson, D., Webb, E., & Janson, S. (2009). Burden and consequences of child maltreatment in high-income countries. The Lancet, 373(9657), 68-81. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(08)61706-7
Haugebrook, S., Zgoba, K. M., Maschi, T., Morgen, K., & Brown, D. (2010). Trauma, Stress, Health, and Mental Health Issues Among Ethnically Diverse Older Adult Prisoners. Journal of Correctional Health Care, 16(3), 220-229. doi:10.1177/1078345810367482
Indig, D., Gear, C., & Wilhelm, K. (2016). Comorbid Substance Use Disorders and Mental Health Disorders among New Zealand Prisoners. New Zealand prisoners, Department of Corrections, 2016.
Messina, N., Grella, C., Burdon, W., & Prendergast, M. (2007). Childhood Adverse Events and Current Traumatic Distress: A Comparison of Men and Women Drug-Dependent Prisoners. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 34(11), 1385-1401. doi:10.1177/0093854807305150
Miller, N., & Najavits, L. (2012). Creating trauma-informed correctional care: a balance of goals and environment. European Journal of Psychotraumatology. Volume 3, 2012.
Teicher, M. H., & Samson, J. A. (2016). Annual Research Review: Enduring neurobiological effects of childhood abuse and neglect. In (Vol. 57, pp. 241-266).
Tam, K., & Derkzen, D. (2014). Exposure to Trauma among Women Offenders: A Review of the Literature. Correctional Service of Canada.
Since graduating from the University of Waikato, Kirsty Dempster-Rivett has accumulated a diverse range of experience as a Clinical Psychologist. This has involved multiple roles within government agencies such as The Department of Corrections, Waikato District Health Board, as well as community based practice especially in collaboration with Waikato schools and Non-Government Organisations. Specifically, Kirsty’s career has focused on working with young people who have experienced significant trauma and the provision of ACC sensitive claims supervision. A significant proportion of her work has been with children and young people in care with a specific focus on suicide and self-harming prevention and postvention.