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Milwaukee County Courts Introduce Trauma Curriculum and Workgroup to be Trauma Responsive

May 27th, 2019 - During a training in Milwaukee, one attendee described the experience of watching a survivor of sexual assault erupt from her chair, when a courtroom official triggered her by placing his hand on her shoulder. A young mother in treatment court said that there are days when she wants to use drugs to escape the pain of her past. These are just two of the many stories that illustrate the impact of trauma and underscore the value of recognizing and responding to the trauma of victims, defendants, and professionals in the justice system.

Trauma can take many forms - a serious accident or illness, natural disasters, war, abuse, or witnessing violence in the home or in the community. These threatening, terrifying, and overwhelming experiences can have short- and long-term effects on a person’s physical, social, and emotional wellbeing.

Trauma is especially pervasive in the justice system. A 2009 study of jail diversion programs found that nearly all participants reported significant trauma histories prior to incarceration.

With its stringent rules and procedures, using a flexible trauma-informed approach in the justice system may not seem to be a natural fit – or even contradictory. Research tells us that the stress associated with trauma influences the way individuals think, act, and feel. Trauma also affects the way criminal justice professionals respond when working with individuals in the system. If practitioners understand how trauma manifests behaviorally and is triggered through interactions, we will be better poised to engage individuals, connect them to support, break their cyclical involvement in the system, and promote public safety.

With the support of The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and its Safety and Justice Challenge, Milwaukee County has implemented changes to create a more trauma-responsive justice system. Educating criminal justice stakeholders about trauma is among these efforts. This is one of many strategies being launched in collaboration with the local criminal justice system and community partners.

In February 2017, Policy Research Inc (PRI) led two train-the-trainer sessions, equipping 30 representatives from the behavioral health and criminal justice systems with the material and skills to train their peers. Training topics include basic facts about trauma and its effects, how trauma manifests itself, as well as the concepts of trauma-informed responses and systems.

To date, the initial cohort of 30 trainers has presented the trauma curriculum to over 550 criminal justice system stakeholders. Some agencies, such as the Wisconsin Public Defender's Office and the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office, mandated the training for their staff.

Reaction to the trauma trainings has been positive. One participant shared, “The content made me open my eyes in a way that I’ve not done in the past. It gave me a totally different perspective.”

Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Mary Triggiano attended the train-the-trainer session. She has been involved in making our courts trauma smart since 2007. “This work has made me a better judge and a better human being. It has made me feel that I am doing meaningful work,” says Judge Triggiano.

Judge Triggiano helped to bring the PRI training to Milwaukee and supported the development of a curriculum specifically for judges. Judge Triggiano and her colleague, Judge Carl Ashley, have worked diligently to ensure their judicial peers are trained and trauma-informed. So far, 34 judges have been trained. Additional trainings are scheduled to train the remaining Milwaukee County Circuit Court judges on trauma by September 2019.

In addition to teaching a course at Marquette Law School on trauma and the criminal justice system, Judge Triggiano chairs a Trauma Workgroup, which is implementing strategies to make the courts more trauma responsive. The committee is currently reviewing governance, leadership, policies, and the physical environment of the courts to establish a common vision for addressing trauma. This will also include cross-sector collaboration and screening services to support the development, monitoring, financing, and evaluation of trauma-informed practices. The ultimate goal is to produce better outcomes for people involved in the criminal justice system.

Through these combined efforts, the Safety and Justice Challenge grant is introducing promising practices that will change our system response and improve outcomes for persons impacted by the criminal justice system in Milwaukee County.


Milwaukee Community Justice Council


633 West Wisconsin Avenue - Suite 409, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53203

Mandy Potapenko, Director

(414) 435-1250




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