Trauma-Informed Practice in Restorative Justice


Restorative justice is fundamentally concerned with healing, both for victims and perpetrators of harm. However, this mandate becomes exceptionally challenging when applied to individuals affected by trauma. Trauma-informed practice within restorative justice is an evolving field that attends to this very complexity. It builds on the work of seminal thinkers like Bessel van der Kolk, Judith Herman, and Gabor Maté, who have explored the profound effects of trauma on the human psyche and body. This article delves into the theoretical frameworks of trauma-informed practice, its historical underpinnings, a compelling case study, and contemporary insights that are paving the way for the future.

Historical Background

The concept of trauma has been understood in various ways throughout history, from shell-shock in war veterans to complex trauma resulting from prolonged abuse. Judith Herman’s seminal work, “Trauma and Recovery,” expanded the understanding of trauma, categorizing it into a spectrum that goes beyond acute incidents to include chronic, relational trauma (Herman, 1992). Howard Zehr, the “grandfather” of modern restorative justice, laid the groundwork for integrating trauma-informed principles into restorative justice practices (Zehr, 2015).

Theoretical Frameworks

Biopsychosocial Model

The biopsychosocial model proposed by George Engel posits that biological, psychological, and social factors contribute to human functioning in the context of disease or illness. This model is vital in understanding how trauma manifests in different dimensions of human life.

Polyvagal Theory

Developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, the Polyvagal Theory helps explain the biological underpinnings of traumatic responses and their manifestations (Porges, 2011). It has profound implications for restorative justice by emphasizing the need for physiological as well as psychological safety.

Sanctuary Model

Sandra Bloom’s Sanctuary Model places particular emphasis on creating environments that are psychologically and physically safe, inclusive, and conducive to healing (Bloom, 1997). This is particularly relevant in restorative justice programs that seek to address power imbalances between the victim and the perpetrator.

Case Study: Restorative Youth Circles in High-Trauma Schools

A non-profit organization in a high-crime urban area introduced Restorative Youth Circles aimed at addressing youth-related offenses and high suspension rates in schools. These circles adopted a trauma-informed approach, meaning that facilitators were trained in recognizing signs of trauma and creating a space that minimizes re-traumatization.

The initiative led to not only a significant reduction in school suspensions but also reported improvements in school climate. Notably, teachers reported that they could more effectively communicate with students who had opened up about their traumas in these circles, thereby nurturing a culture of empathy and understanding.

Contemporary Insights

Neuroplasticity and Healing

Recent discoveries in neuroplasticity offer exciting possibilities for healing. Thought leaders like Dr. Dan Siegel discuss the capacity for healing at a neural level even after severe trauma (Siegel, 2012).


Modern frameworks are adopting an intersectional approach to understanding trauma, accounting for how varying social factors such as race, gender, and economic status intersect to influence an individual’s experience and response to trauma.

Technological Innovations

With the rise of telehealth services and virtual reality, there are new platforms and methodologies for incorporating trauma-informed care into restorative justice, although these also come with their own challenges.

Conclusion: Academic Insights

The practice of trauma-informed care within restorative justice is an evolving paradigm that warrants ongoing scholarly attention. The contributions of key thought leaders, from Judith Herman’s groundbreaking classifications to Stephen Porges’ insights into the neurobiology of trauma, provide us with a solid foundation, but the field is by no means static. Trauma is a complex, multi-faceted issue that necessitates a similarly nuanced approach within restorative justice.

In academic spheres, the next frontier lies in the empirical evaluation of trauma-informed restorative justice programs. The compelling outcomes of case studies like the Restorative Youth Circles must be substantiated through rigorous research methodologies. This will serve not only to validate the effectiveness of these interventions but also to refine and evolve them, ensuring that they remain aligned with the latest scientific understanding of trauma and its myriad manifestations.