Vicarious Trauma is Real — and I Learned the Hard Way

Contributing Author: Michael Rourke, Weld County (Colorado) District Attorney

When I say the word “prosecutor,” what image comes to mind? Jack McCoy? A mentor of yours from early in your career? Or is it a generic stereotype which permeates media and modern culture? You know the one — an aggressive, hard-charging, tough on crime, navy suit-clad attorney searching for justice on behalf of victims.

For many of us, that stereotype has defined our careers. It has been the image we have sought to emulate in courtrooms across this country. We confidently stand before our juries, proud to be an eloquent voice for those who have been victimized, honored to speak for those who have not yet found their voices again. I suspect that if you have been as fortunate as I to enjoy a long career as a prosecutor, you have stood before your juries carrying the weight of another’s victimization hundreds of times, if not more. And yet, we have done this without realizing the impact that such advocacy has on us.

In the early 2000s, I was assigned to our Special Victims’ Unit, in which we handled sexual assault on children and felony child abuse cases. I had served in this unit for almost two years at that point, when one day I picked up a new file to review. The allegations involved a middle school teacher touching a student’s backside over her clothing in an inappropriate way, and my first thought was “oh no, not another one of these.” I had a docket full of incredibly horrific sexual assaults on children of all ages, and this was my reaction? While I recognized that perhaps it was time to move to another caseload within the office, I never stopped to understand why I thought that, and frankly it didn’t matter to me at that point. I was already looking forward to other opportunities in the office.

In 2006, I was the lead prosecutor on a horrible sexual assault and burglary case in which a stranger broke into a college student’s apartment. She was at home asleep, was awakened by the perpetrator, and sexually assaulted for the next two hours. During that prosecution, she suffered from PTSD and seizure disorders, something that my trial partner and I worked through with her and her family. We approached that prosecution with all the confidence that one could muster and obtained a conviction. But once again, we did so without recognition or even a thought of the impact — the toll — that took on myself and my colleagues.

I offer those two cases as examples of the types of victimization that prosecutors around the country handle daily. I also offer them as points in my career when there should have been an understanding that secondary trauma is real, and it does take a toll. However, that image of a “prosecutor” prevented me from coming to those realizations.

In the summer of 2018, my wife was producing a podcast which covered all manner of topics, ranging from criminal justice issues to victim advocacy to women’s issues. She had a friend of ours as a guest who was a very accomplished television reporter. The topic was vicarious trauma and its effects upon reporters who cover horrific stories for local news stations. During the interview, the reporter spoke about the impacts of covering such stories as the Columbine school shooting and the Aurora Theater shooting, equating her experiences to that of a wartime correspondent.

Her message during that podcast made absolute sense to me. Of course, being at those crime scenes, hearing the emergency response, and smelling the gunpowder in the air, would have a significant mental health impact upon those reporters and camera operators. Even at that point, there was still no recognition that I may be living something like that in my professional career as well.

Then, the horrors of the triple homicide case in Frederick, Colorado unfolded in painful detail before the world.

It was August of 2018. I will not use the name of the perpetrator and personify the monster who committed these offenses, but the case made international headlines, and still does today. An outwardly appearing “all-American family.” A hard-working couple who seemed financially secure. Two beautiful little girls, ages four and three, flowing blonde hair. A wife expecting a baby boy. Shanann (pregnant with baby Nico), Bella and Celeste disappeared from their suburban home. Suspicion fell almost immediately on the “grieving husband” who for two consecutive nights stood on the front porch of their suburban home and pleaded for their safe return, begging for answers and expressing his grief for his missing family.

Yet all along, he knew exactly where they were. He had annihilated his family, all in an effort to start anew with a different love interest. As he feigned grief and despair, he knew that his wife and unborn son were buried in a shallow grave on the plains of Colorado, strangled to death by his own hands. He knew that his two little girls, both of whom he had smothered, were summarily shoved into separate oil tanks through eight-inch diameter hatches at the top of the tanks.

As a prosecutor, I saw this as another opportunity to step up and speak for innocent victims, to be the voice for Shanann, Bella, Celeste and Nico. After all, that is what we do. We obtain justice for their murders.

One night, sitting on the couch with my wife, I finally decided that I needed to look at the secondary crime scene photographs which documented the recovery of their bodies. I needed to fully prepare my case, and I had to look at the photos that captured the conditions of those little girls when they were recovered by hazardous material crews. I looked up and saw my own daughter, three and a half years old with blonde hair, dancing and singing in our living room.

And that’s when it happened.

My mind took me to a very dark place — for the first time in a 21-year career, I finally understood the horrifying toll this job can take. I realized that this career had changed me, this case had changed me. It had changed my partners. We lost a very skilled, longtime detective from the ranks of law enforcement all together.

Vicarious trauma exists. We have known of its impacts for decades. I only first acknowledged its impact upon me during that prosecution, and that understanding has been a life-changing experience. My epiphany was not just limited to prosecutors, however. Secondary trauma can be a daily reality for our secretaries, victim advocates, investigators and community relations directors.

The impact upon me was profound, and not just limited to that one evening on the couch with my wife. My jurisdiction is a largely rural community with a robust oil and gas industry. You cannot drive down a road for any appreciable distance without seeing an oil tank battery. For more than two years now, I have not passed one of those batteries without thoughts of those innocent little girls intermixed with my own daughter. For the longest time, falling asleep was a premium that also came with a price. I knew that someday, my trial partners and I would have to stand up in a courtroom, before television cameras and the world, and once again, use our own voices to try and give their lives dignity and explain their deaths in a meaningful way.

It was in those quiet moments that I realized asking for help, feeling despair, and showing the traditionally taboo signs of emotion were not forbidden for a prosecutor; nor were they signs of weakness. It was a realization that we too suffer vicarious trauma because of what we do. We see the absolute worst that humanity inflicts upon one another. We get out of bed when the 3:00 am phone call alerts us of yet another homicide. That is what we do.

This realization could not be kept to myself. I felt compelled to act on what I had learned, albeit far too late. Employee Assistance Programs and counseling opportunities were no longer bad words in my office. We began the process of creating a peer support program for my employees. I was honored to be asked, and I readily agreed to serve as a task force member for the NDAA Well-being Task Force created by President Nancy Parr. Most significantly, we shifted the culture away from the stereotypical image of a prosecutor and the associated functions toward one that encourages requests for assistance and compassion during the difficult times.

But what about that image? The prosecutor in me would talk about this case with my wife, and I would tell her “I’m fine,” (a phrase that has now become taboo in my own household). She knew better, and so did I. I personally had to take that leap that I was now preaching to my own employees. The “prosecutor” needed help too. That leap made all the difference in the world, as I learned that yes, those professional counselors could help me too. Even so, it took more than two years for me to write about that case, our experiences, and vicarious trauma. This is my first effort at that endeavor. It is my hope in doing so that others who need to take that same leap will do so.

That case changed all of us. I will never forget those little girls. They helped teach me that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but rather a strength that needs to be shared with others.

The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country.