Studies show that growing up in poverty hurts young minds. A recent New York Times article chronicling these findings compares growing up in poverty to playing football without a helmet-everyday life causes social concussions. Brute force is not required to cause physical changes in the brain, rather these changes can result from perpetual toxic stress. How is this so? The brain is the primary mediator and target of stress resiliency and vulnerability because it determines what is threatening and also decides how to respond to that threat. When a person is stressed, the brain releases a hormone called cortisol-a hormone that is essential to the “fight or flight” response and that is important in the development of young children. Margaret Cotty, executive director of the Partnership With Children explains:
Too much cortisol changes two parts of the brain. One is your prefrontal lobe in the front of your brain. That’s how you develop executive functions — negotiating with people, telling the difference between good and bad, thinking about the consequences of your actions, your social behaviors in a classroom. Literally, how you behave. The other area is the hippocampus, deeper in the brain, which is central to creating memories of fact. The things you can declare and verbalize. Pretty important to school.
These concerns were highlighted in a study that was conducted by Kaiser Permanente health maintenance organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 1995 and 1997. The study, called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, demonstrated an association of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) with health and social problems as an adult. Children who develop in lower socioeconomic (SES) households, in addition to being exposed to toxic substances, excessive noise, and temperature variations, are more likely to live in unfavorable housing conditions and to be exposed to what have been termed “risky family” dynamics, characterized by conflict-laden relationships, aggressive and harsh parenting, and other forms of early life stress which may increase risk for the problems highlighted above. Also, individuals living in low SES neighborhoods may be more frequently exposed to stressful life events in association with higher concerns over community crime, pollution, and crowding, as well as unstable, effortful, and unrewarding employment opportunities related to persistent economic hardship.
This reality undoubtedly affects court systems every day. It is important to consider past and present trauma when working with clients in the court system, as many have undoubtedly been exposed to multiple stressors in their lives. In such instances, it is possible that clients may exhibit behaviors that are problematic or frustrating since their executive functioning and stress response systems have been adversely affected. In an article entitled “The Pedagogy of Trauma-Informed Lawyering,” Sarah Katz and Deeya Haldar offer suggestions for courts and attorneys. According to them, the hallmarks of a trauma-informed practice are when the practitioner puts the realities of the client’s trauma experiences at the forefront in engaging with the client, and adjusts the practice approach informed by the individual client’s trauma experience. Trauma-informed practice also encompasses the practitioner employing modes of self-care to counterbalance the effect the client’s trauma experience may have on the petitioner. By approaching the client with a trauma-informed response, the root of the problem can be addressed rather than exacerbated.