Contributing Authors: Brittany Scordo, MSW, Director of Victim Services, Fayette Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office & Lou Anna Red Corn, Fayette Commonwealth’s Attorney, Task Force Member
He beat her, he strangled her, he smeared excrement on her face, and told her he would kill her. She played dead and lived. You just negotiated a very good resolution in this attempted murder/kidnapping case that will result in a long prison term for the offender. The survivor spoke directly to the court and the offender during the on-line video sentencing hearing. Afterwards, she told the advocate and you how empowering it was for her.
You should feel good too — but instead you’re exhausted. And when you look back on everything you did to build the case, to keep the survivor on board, and to help her begin her life again, you wonder whether you will have the strength and energy for the next time. And there will be a next time, because you are a devoted and passionate Domestic Violence (DV) prosecutor. Here are some tips for staying that way.
You may be suffering from secondary or vicarious trauma — sometimes referred to as burnout or compassion fatigue. Working with trauma-exposed survivors often accumulates as secondary trauma and can interfere with your professional ability, personal life, and even your health — and DV prosecutors are particularly susceptible to secondary traumatic stress.
The psychological and physical stress resulting from exposure to violence and pain is normal. Dr. Rachel Remen said, “the expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet”. Give yourself permission to feel however you feel about your caseload, the photos you see, the survivors you work with, and the human suffering you bear witness to. I guarantee you are not the only prosecutor going through it.
Part of enhancing your well-being is to acknowledge when you are experiencing the effects of toxic stress, secondary trauma, and compassion fatigue. It is important to take inventory of your own thoughts, feelings and behaviors so we can acknowledge when we are struggling. The Professional Quality of Life Measure is a tool you can use to reflect.
The ProQOL screening can help you think about areas of your life you may want to focus on increasing satisfaction. For example, if you answer “often” to the item, “I find it difficult to separate my personal life from my life as a [helper]”, then you might consider implementing rituals that help you maintain healthy boundaries between your work time and your personal time, an important aspect of resiliency and satisfaction. Reaching out to colleagues or consulting with a secondary trauma specialist can be very helpful.
The term “self-care” has come to invoke images of bubble baths and pedicures at the end of a long week. Self-care is actually an active and ongoing mental, emotional, and physical imperative to build resilience. Here is a diagram of self-care considerations for before, during, and after exposure to trauma. Most people are familiar with the “later/ongoing” quadrant, but less familiar with the others. Do you have rituals as you come and go from work to switch from work mode to personal mode? Are you aware of your body during victim interviews? Are you intentional about meaningful debriefing with colleagues and supervisors? These are all aspects of self-care that contribute to satisfaction and resilience. (Middleton 2015)
Working with domestic violence survivors is a role with unique and particularly challenging stressors. The dynamics of these cases often make them more difficult to prosecute than homicide cases. It can be incredibly frustrating to spend hours and days of work watching body camera footage, talking to witnesses, and compiling 404B evidence, only to have a survivor recant, relapse, or disappear altogether. The most resilient veteran domestic violence prosecutors have internalized this belief: a victim’s behavior is not about you. Despite the natural inclination to take things personally, victims are usually doing the best they can to be safe and happy.
Lastly, know that you are not alone. The impact of secondary trauma and compassion fatigue has long been a conversation among front line social workers, trauma therapists, and others in the mental health field who are exposed to trauma in their work. More recently, first responders have started to pay closer attention to the impact the job has on their overall well-being. As second and third responders, prosecutors must acknowledge secondary trauma as a natural risk of our jobs as well and take steps to tap into our natural resilience.
Silverman, William C. “How to Identify and Address Secondary Trauma.” The National Law Review, Volume X, Number 72. September 28, 2020; Steckler, Tamara and Light, Vicki E.
“The Hidden Cost of Empathy: How to Address Secondary Trauma Stress in a Child Law Office.” The American Bar Association. January 9, 2017.MIddleton, J. (2015). Addressing secondary trauma and compassion fatigue in work with older veterans: An ethical imperative. Ageing Life Care J, 5, 1–8.
Stamm, B. H. (2010). The ProQOL (Professional Quality of Life Scale: Compassion Satisfaction and Compassion Fatigue). Pocatello, ID: ProQOL.org. retrieved [10/2/2020] www.proqol.org
Brittany Scordo, MSW, is the Director of Victim’s Services at the Fayette Commonwealth Attorney’s Office. Before transitioning to social work, Brittany taught high school Spanish and English for several years as a Teach for America corps member in the Mississippi Delta and in Louisville, KY. Brittany advocates for survivors of adult sexual assault and domestic violence.
Lou Anna Red Corn is the Fayette Commonwealth’s Attorney (DA) in Lexington, KY. Red Corn has been a prosecutor in her office since 1987 and the elected since 2016. Red Corn is the Kentucky State NDAA State Director and a Well-being Task Force Member.