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To support survivors, we must understand ​ trauma.

As advocates, helping our clients achieve justice, safety, and self-determination is what we strive for every day. But in order to engage with the legal system, our clients have to navigate institutions that often harm them at every turn—from having their stories questioned by law enforcement, to being re-traumatized at repeated court dates, to having their credibility doubted because they didn’t look or sound the way the court expects.  

Our court processes do not consider trauma. As a result, they often cause more harm to survivors who depend on them.  

From years of supporting survivors of intimate partner violence, we have learned how to integrate trauma-informed practices into the provision of legal services. Trauma-informed legal services help limit re-traumatization, allowing advocates to more compassionately serve survivors, individualize safety planning and case strategy to account for each client’s goals and needs, and push our courts and systems to be more compassionate and responsive to the people appearing before them. 

Learn more about trauma and why understanding it matters in legal services.  

What Is Trauma?

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  • Trauma is an emotional response to an experience, set of circumstances, or event, that is emotionally or physically harmful to us and has lasting effects on our well-being.

  • When we experience, relive, or recount something traumatic, our bodies and minds may react as if our lives are threatened, even if there was no direct threat to our lives. Our survival instincts take over. In the moment, we’ll experience a rush of stress hormones that lead to responses such as fight, flight, freeze, and interrupt the way our mind stores memories. This happens instinctively, and individuals have no control over how many or which hormones flood their system.

  • Trauma changes our sense of safety and our behavior. Our brains and bodies store the traumatic experience and become hyper-focused on survival in our everyday lives. So, when we are reminded of a traumatic experience (such as through similar emotions, smells, and sounds), our bodies and minds may go back into survival mode and react as if we are threatened again, even if we are safe.

  • Trauma is subjective: if two people experience the same thing, one person could experience it as traumatic while the other one may not, and they are likely to experience different reactions.

Trauma can be caused by abuse, sexual assault, accidents, life-threatening illnesses, and more. It also includes systemic events like racism, poverty and home instability, and witnessing or hearing of similar harms to others. Certain factors can impact someone’s traumatic response, including repeated traumas, experiencing harm by someone they trust, and the way others respond to and support them after they experience trauma.  

Being a Trauma-Informed Legal Professional

A trauma-informed approach is one that accounts for the impacts of trauma on clients’ lives. 

Someone who has experienced trauma at any point in their lives, as a child or as an adult, may have lasting impacts from the traumatic event that will affect all aspects of their interactions with us, from the first meeting, to how they tell us their stories, to how they behave in the court room. This may be especially true for clients who have experienced poverty or possess a marginalized identity, including clients of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ+ clients.  

Here are some values that guide trauma-informed legal services:  

  • Being client-centered: centering the needs and wishes of each client with individualized services 
  • Engaging, listening, and understanding our client’s position, goals, and reasoning  
  • Working with clients through a partnership: not seeing ourselves as the experts in their lives, because we aren’t the ones living their lives  
  • Valuing our clients’ agency and self-determination 
  • Being aware of the impact of trauma on both our clients and ourselves 

Trauma is relevant even if the legal matter, such as housing or child support, is not directly "about" trauma. Understanding trauma and how it impacts our clients, regardless of the issue they are presenting with, is essential for client-centered lawyering. We cannot view our clients as only having a single issue: human beings are complex and for clients experiencing poverty, trauma is inherently woven into their life experience. 

Understanding trauma can help us be better advocates for our clients by:  

  • Identifying how trauma may affect how and why the client engages with the legal system  
  • Identifying obstacles clients are having with engaging with us 
  • Identifying trauma responses and developing responsive skills to help clients work through them 
  • Translating our client's traumatic responses to the legal system 

We are not mental health professionals. But to serve our clients, it is essential we identify when trauma may be impacting how they engage with us and with the court, because this affects their legal success as well as their well-being. If you often see clients who appear in court or at meetings with some of the following symptoms, they may be experiencing trauma: 

  • Vacillating quickly between intense emotional reactions 
  • Headaches, fatigue, low motivation 
  • Insomnia  
  • Tears or crying episodes 
  • Self-harm  
  • Low self-esteem  
  • Irritability  
  • Not wanting to be alive  
  • Anxiousness, jitters, ataques de nervios  
  • Paranoia  
  • Zoning out 
  • Decreased functioning  
  • Seeing or hearing things that others do not (appearing to be out of touch with reality) 
  • Somatic symptoms: injuries, chronic pain, choking sensations, other body pains  
  • Unexplained injuries, repeat healthcare visits, or delays in seeking care  
  • Avoidance 

Difficulty in recall is a strong sign that someone has experienced trauma. While legal experts expect “credible” witnesses to tell linear stories, many survivors don’t remember traumatic events in that way. If a regular memory plays like a movie, traumatic memories, like domestic violence and sexual assault, play like a highlight reel of thoughts and feelings, as told through sensory details like sounds and smells. Ordinary details like dates and time—which aren't essential to one’s survival—are not stored by the brain in the way they normally are, so they aren’t easily recalled. And yet, in the legal system, a survivor’s believability often depends on their ability to recall things chronological and at a moment's notice. 

When recalling a traumatic event, a survivor may respond in unexpected ways. They may have a flat affect, laugh, get angry, tell their story in non-chronological order, or react in other ways that seem contradictory. These are completely common reactions to recalling trauma.  

Over the course of their work with us, the legal system, law enforcement, and other institutions often harm clients further, particularly clients of color, LGBTQ+ clients, and immigrants. This can re-traumatize clients, make them less likely to engage with systems when they need help in the future, and decrease their safety. Here are some examples:  

  • A judge did not believe a survivor of color’s account of abuse because she did not call the police or try to move to a domestic violence shelter, despite the client's testimony that she came from a community where police involvement posed its own threat of violence, and shelter was not an option because she relied on her family, who lived next door, for childcare.  
  • A judge did not believe a survivor who was extensively beaten because no one else “saw the bruises” despite the client’s testimony that her bruises were not visible under the hijab that she wore for religious observance 
  • Law enforcement arrested a victim of repeated domestic violence after talking only with the English-speaking perpetrator of harm, ignoring the victim who was unable to communicate in English, although they had four prior orders of protection against the harming party.  
  • The protracted nature of our courts requires survivors to continue entering hostile legal spaces with a person who harmed them for multiple years. This can increase their risk of additional harm and prevent them from obtaining resolution and independence from the harming party. Litigation abuse, filing multiple false or unnecessary applications to keep survivors in court in an attempt to intimidate and harass them, is a frequent tactic used by harming parties. 
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A judge did not believe a survivor of color’s account of abuse because she did not call the police or try to move to a domestic violence shelter, despite the client's testimony that she came from a community where police involvement posed its own threat of violence, and shelter was not an option because she relied on her family, who lived next door, for childcare.  
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