‘Trauma-Informed Lawyering’ Can Help Domestic Violence Survivors: Paper

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domestic violence

Photo by Moral Rights Asserted via Flickr

Joan, 19, met her older partner Anthony at a party. Within a year of dating, Joan gave birth to their first son. After the baby was born, Anthony became physically violent, “frequently hitting, punching, and kicking” her. She finally left him after having two more children, applying for a protection order, and going through the courts to seek full custody.

She checked off all the right boxes, but her trauma continued when she went through Family Court and experienced victim-blaming at the hands of Anthony’s defense team.

Joan’s story (the names have been changed to protect privacy) is described in a forthcoming Arizona Legal Study Discussion Paper (No. 19-10)  by Negar Katirai, an associate clinical professor at The University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, as an example of the “retraumatization” experienced by domestic violence victims during the judicial process.

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline website,81 percent of women who experienced rape, stalking, or physical violence by an intimate partner reported significant short or long-term impacts that include post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms (PTSD).

These PTSD symptoms are exacerbated when taking an abuser to court because of the retraumatization—also known as secondary victimization—that develops from having to recount the abuse.

For some survivors, “simply participating in the process can be as painful and damaging as the crime itself,” wrote Katirai.

In her study, Katirai, who is also director of the University of Arizona’s Domestic Violence Law Clinic, recognized that, “The focus of this article is not proposing legal reforms to improve the experience of IPV survivor.”

Instead, she wrote that it aimed to lay down the groundwork for immediate strategies of how lawyers can improve the experiences of survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) in the Family Court system.

The immediate strategies comprise:

  • Encouraging lawyers to begin learning and actively practicing the use of “cross-cultural communication skills” while educating survivors on the potential retraumatizing effects of the legal system; and
  • Including supportive services, such as additional counseling, within law firms.

Cross-Cultural Communication

According to Katirai, such strategies rely on communication theory, which says cross-cultural communication can creates a feeling of trust and enable cooperation between two people by using empathy and a non-judgmental approach. It’s about making the survivor feel “seen and heard,” she wrote.

With active listening skills, extensive knowledge of verbal and nonverbal behavior, and “approaching conversations on a case-by-case basis rather than a one-size-fits-all approach” lawyers can have more understanding when dealing with sensitive Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) cases.

Katirai described an exercise that clients can do with their lawyers: Advocates and survivors should work on a shared Venn Diagram where they each talk about their diverse experiences with dating abuse and partner violence.

It’s possible that the lawyer may not have any personal experience, which is why this exercise facilitates open conversation and empathy, she wrote.

Together, they should then add a third ring to the Venn Diagram, where they consider the viewpoints of the legal-decision maker, usually a judge. This part of the exercise helps educate the IPV survivor to consider how the judge will be able to believe and relate to them during trial.

At that time, Katirai explained, the lawyer may decide to caution the survivor of the potential for retraumatization when going against their abuser. The advocate must clear up any misconceptions about the process, as well as discuss realistic goals for the outcome. The survivor can also voice fears and concerns about going to trail that the lawyer can listen to and give their legal opinions.

Trauma-Informed Lawyering

A New York University School of Law study, cited in Katirai’s article, titled The Pedagogy of Trauma-Informed Lawyering described trauma-informed practice as a survivor-centered approach where lawyers provide information to “therapeutic services, social, and human services.”

“Trauma-informed services are more ‘supportive (rather than controlling and punitive),’” and they’re designed to avoid victim blaming,” she wrote.

The NYU study suggests that traumatic experiences of survivors have a direct relationship with how they relate to their attorneys and the courts.

“Trauma has a distinct physiological effect on the brain, which in turn affects behavior in the short-term and long-term… referred to as a “flight, fight, freeze.”

According to the NYU study, merely having an IPV survivor recount their experiences in court in front of their abuser is enough to trigger their subconscious response which can lead to clients becoming angry, hostile, emotional, or shutting down completely.

Katirai ties cross-cultural communication in by explaining how once the survivor and lawyer better understand each other, lawyers can make better recommendations tailored to the survivors needs to prevent the survivor from acting out or closing up.

However, there are cases where utilizing cross-cultural communication, as well as individualized service recommendations, aren’t enough to make someone feel supported while going through a trial and reliving their trauma.

Having a social worker within the firm is a useful service for survivors who need more than an outside therapist because the survivors may seek support through every legal step, Katirai suggested.

By combining cross-cultural communication and utilizing effective therapeutic services, lawyers can limit the revictimization many IPV survivors feel throughout Family Court, wrote Katirai.

For more resources and background on domestic violence, see The Crime Report’s Resource Page on domestic violence.

Download the full paper here.

Additional Reading: IL Bail Reforms Put Domestic Violence Victims at Risk

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.

One thought on “‘Trauma-Informed Lawyering’ Can Help Domestic Violence Survivors: Paper

  1. How about trauma informed courts? I think a lot of family law attorneys put the best interest of therr rent in front of the best interest of the children. The family court system is struggling with docket control, informed judges and legislation, [and it] lacks the checks and balances to watch over the state family court decisions.

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