No robe required: more approachable court means less trauma, more help for those living with mental illness

By Karen Schotanus

In Wyandotte County, an involuntary commitment court is working hard to become a “helping court.”

With the cooperation of Judge Kathleen Lynch’s trauma-informed courtroom, law enforcement and community partners like the Wyandot Center (Wyandotte County’s mental health center), those on involuntary commitment court orders are being given more opportunities to succeed.

“We have the most progressive involuntary commitment court in the state,” said Judge Lynch of her trauma-informed courtroom, which applies certain practices that are meant to prevent trauma to respondents in the court. Many of the individuals that come to her courtroom are struggling with mental health issues, drug addiction, recent incarceration or hospitalization.

Deputy Sheriff Tom Stark, the transport officer for this court, understands the stress that many of the respondents are experiencing. “They don’t know what’s right or wrong sometimes. They’ve got mental health problems,” he said, pointing out that often their illness prevents them from understanding why they are in court in the first place.

Attorneys who work in Judge Lynch’s courtroom agree.

“It can be very intimidating to come into court right out of the state hospital,” says Jeffry Baker, one of four attorneys serving on Judge Lynch’s involuntary commitment docket. “We try and make it as least traumatic as possible.”

Christine Swenson, director of case management and court relations at Wyandot Center, has seen the difference the trauma-informed court has made. “People might have been really anxious, even angry,” she said about respondents attending the court. Judge Lynch’s methods reduce that anxiety.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference between this courtroom and a traditional one is the absence of the judge’s traditional black robe. Meant to symbolize impartiality, in certain situations and with certain individuals, that robe can be very intimidating.

“I made a commitment not to wear the robe in the involuntary commitment court,” Judge Lynch said. Depending on the needs of the respondent, she may even step down from the bench and sit directly across from the individual. “I deliberately slow myself down, pay attention to language and body language.”

Baker said the court does its best to minimize the number of people the respondents’ interact with. “We want to reduce the trauma so they aren’t constantly having new people involved in their treatment and in their lives,” Baker said. “They know my name and my face. I get to know my clients…I see their medical reports and get to know what’s going on with them. It makes it a lot better.”

Deputy Stark said Judge Lynch strikes a good balance between the need to maintain some formality while also putting the respondents’ at ease. “Her courtroom has to have a formality, but she makes it seem like it doesn’t.” he said. “She makes it so that it’s not a bad thing to go to court. [She] isn’t there to punish you…She’s there to take care of you.”

And for many of the people coming to her court, having someone take care of them is exactly what they need. “You’ve got the people that have been forgotten about. A lot of these people are homeless…they been scared, they’ve been mistreated,” said Deputy Stark.

Before she adopted the trauma-informed practices, Judge Lynch saw a pattern of individuals cycling through a system that exposed them to multiple court appearances and repeated hospitalizations. She was getting tired of the revolving door. “Somewhere, we were failing these folks.”

She wanted to find a way to help those coming through her court get out of the cycle. “We want to make sure they are going to be successful in the community, we want them to be as successful, as healthy and well as they can be,” she said.

Swenson sees success in the way that court listens to the respondents, encourages them, and empowers them in their own treatment.

“I tell them they are doing a good job. They feel better about themselves. It’s changed the perception of the people we deal with,” said Deputy Stark.

“We talk to them in a calm way, let them know they aren’t being prosecuted, they aren’t going to be thrown in jail. We explain how we can help them,” said Baker.

Part of that help involves encouraging the respondents to take ownership of the challenges they’re facing.

“The biggest success isn’t that they’ve completed their orders, but that they’ve got a more internal motivation,” Swenson said.

After six months of successful court appearances, respondents who have completed their outpatient orders do not need to return to the court. When that happens, it makes it all worthwhile for Judge Lynch.

“I suspect I’m the only judge in Wyandotte County who has hugged a respondent,” she said. “It’s easy to give standard orders, but when you take the time [to be a trauma-informed court] it’s the most rewarding. Everybody involved in this docket is doing their best for their fellow man. It’s one of the few courts where we all sit down, we all grab an oar, and we all start rowing.”


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Camille says:

    This is the most uplifting article I read in years. This judge is way ahead of her time and I hope she gets the recognition that she deserves.


  2. Kate says:

    Thank you Camille it is my honor to serve the citizens of Wyandotte County, including those who have difficulty advocating for themselves.


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