The Problem

Interplay of child development, trauma, and outcomes

Genes and experiences impact how a child develops. Adverse childhood experiences can lead to toxic stress and can weaken the architecture of the developing brain. How the brain develops influences social, emotional, cognitive, and physiological domains. Social, emotional, cognitive impairment can lead to behaviors that pose health risks and eventually disease, disability, social problems, and even early death.


The problem in court

According to the Florida Supreme Court’s May 3, 2001 opinionPDF Download, the court’s role regarding the families who appear before it is to "craft solutions that are appropriate for long-term stability and that minimize the need for subsequent court action." Further, the opinion discusses therapeutic justice as a key aspect of the family court process. This concept directs the court to consider the family’s interrelated legal and nonlegal problems. The goal of therapeutic justice is to improve family functioning by providing them with skills and services "where the family can resolve problems without additional emotional trauma."

In order to fulfill the above stated goals, courts must consider all the circumstances and information surrounding the family, and not only the presenting legal issue. For many, if not the majority of the families and children, trauma and chronic stress are underlying risk factors that have contributed to the reason why they are appearing in court. Just as the above pyramid suggests, trauma has impacted the members of the family in a way that impairs long-term health and leads to negative social consequences. To help improve the family’s functioning and lessen the likelihood of the family coming back to court, these underlying factors must be treated. If untreated, today’s child appearing in dependency court returns years later in delinquency court, and then again later in court involved in a domestic violence injunction and a paternity matter. Judges who have spent many years in family court can attest to the multigenerational transmission of trauma and maltreatment.

The science behind the problem

The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study is ongoing collaborative research between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA, and Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, California, linking childhood trauma to long-term health and social consequences. See the second link below for a listing of the ten adverse childhood experiences considered in the study.

The initial phase of the study was conducted at Kaiser Permanente from 1995 to 1997. More than 17,000 participants completed a standardized physical examination. The study continues to examine the medical status of the baseline participants.

“The ACE Study findings suggest that certain experiences are major risk factors for the leading causes of illness and death as well as poor quality of life in the United States. It is critical to understand how some of the worst health and social problems in our nation can arise as a consequence of adverse childhood experiences. Realizing these connections is likely to improve efforts towards prevention and recovery.” (Centers for Disease Control)


  • Click herePDF Download for ACE study findings.
  • Click herePDF Download for the ten items used in the ACE study.
  • Click herePDF Download for the ACE scores of Florida juvenile offenders.
  • Click  herePDF Download for information from a 2014 study of ACE prevalence among young children in the child welfare system.