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When the Bough Breaks — One Prosecutor’s Journey Through Secondary Trauma

Contributing Author: Mary Ashley, NDAA Well-being Task Force Vice Chair

Boy Dies in Own Filth in Locked Room; Dad and Fiancée Charged

- Headline from the Associated Press, September 14, 2020 from Anneville, Pennsylvania

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Photo credit: Omar Ram/Unsplash

These are the headlines that still get me. They are the ones, no matter what state they take place in, that compel me to keep reading. I know what they are going to say but I read them anyway. These cases cause a physical reaction inside of me as I am reading them, with heat rising up my neck and to my face. They bring back every case I ever handled involving serious abuse of a child. My heart starts to pound and my teeth grind. What is this that comes over me when I read about a child in some other part of the country or the world dying covered in his own feces, beaten and starved to death?

It’s rage. I am overcome with it. Who wouldn’t be, right? How could anyone read this and feel otherwise? There must be protests, there should be outcry, there must be justice. Often times, there are none of these things. That is the second part of my rage. There is a biological term and physiological explanation for what is actually happening to me when that occurs. But to me, it’s simple, it is anger, outrage, and pain. It sounds wrong to say, but if I could reach through the pages of the paper or article and shake the perpetrator by the shoulders screaming “what the hell is the matter with you?,” I would. This can’t be healthy, can it?

It’s been well over a decade since I personally prosecuted a child death case. I spent several years handling crimes against children cases — physical and sexual. Then several years after, while in a management assignment, I continued to oversee Major Crimes Against Children and remain involved in the law, medicine, and science that surrounds these cases. It’s only been the last near two years that I was in a new assignment that I was no longer involved in crimes against children. And so, my recovery began. But it’s far from over.

Yes, I can tell you that I am a “recovering child abuse prosecutor”. I know that sounds hilarious to some, strange to others, and possibly hard to believe, but it’s true. Every prosecutor that handled these cases for any amount of time knows what I mean. It changed me and I know I’m not alone.

You are not the life the party. It takes new effort to participate in dinner banter about “how was your day, dear?” You try to spare your friends and family from much of the details, but constantly pour over them with your colleagues, investigators and advocates.

The interviews, the photographs, the examinations, and the videos are the kind of things that keep you up at night. The defendant, the innocent victim, the web of lies and changing stories. Every prosecutor that handles these cases, highly trained, experienced and educated, can recite facts on many of their cases with the snap of a finger, as if it were yesterday. You just can’t forget what you’ve seen, heard, and carried with you in your heart. Your compassion for the vulnerable and the contempt for the evil is righteous and respectable, but it’s not a healthy way to live.

Sure, you deal with the heaviness by making thinks lighter. You use gallows humor and sarcasm to mask the utter horror and persistent awfulness. You are justified in working long hours, ignoring personal relationships, and even yourself. Perhaps you have a little extra at cocktail hour. Make a few jokes. I have the tendency to “silver-linings” everything. I like silver linings, but sometimes, empathy demands you set them aside.

For example, lots of people must deal with difficult jobs. Doctors, law enforcement, first responders, essential frontline workers and many more, particularly now with COVID-19. Many see horrible things, so what makes me any different? Nothing. It just means they suffer through some of these things as well, not that I don’t. A medical doctor/nurse witnesses human suffering all the time, often in urgency or crisis, and must move on to the next patient. They must use their resiliency to cope and help who they can. It doesn’t mean they don’t cry after a tough shift. Or maybe they do not.

All of this was true for me as a prosecutor. Many times you live with the cases and victims for years before any justice’ is served. Every victim deserves one hundred percent of your attention and focus. I believe that. And when you have numerous cases with volumes of information, time constraints, and multiple victims at a time, it can be draining. This can be especially true when victims are children. You are their voice, sometimes from the grave. It is an awesome responsibility and honor.

It is also a burden you must bear when thinking about their pain and suffering. The fact that there is no good reason for what happened — in fact, it should not have happened, does not make it any easier. It did happen and it keeps happening every day across this country. And yet, no one seems to be enraged by the brutal physical and sexual crimes being committed upon children. Now I know that isn’t the case and that many people care and are upset by it, but somedays, it just feels that way to me. We have plenty to worry about with just ourselves and our families. I get that. But I also worry for the at-risk children out there who aren’t being seen and heard right now. They aren’t in school seeing their teachers, attending medical appointments or seeing daycare providers. It worries me.

The concept of secondary trauma and compassion fatigue were foreign to me for many years. For quite some time as the lead attorney for the Family Violence Unit, I was responsible for reviewing and distributing cases to other attorneys. I will never forget a particularly egregious molestation case where the attorney told me afterward that he was “traumatized” after having to do the trial. I am ashamed to say that, at that time, my toughened self laughed at him. I couldn’t believe that a prosecutor wasn’t strong enough to handle the case. I was so insensitive.

There are tools to handle these things that thankfully I am now aware of and have put into practice. Being able to admit that after so many years of being an “experienced” and “tough” prosecutor, I was a rookie when it came to having empathy for my colleagues and for myself. The concept that repeated exposure to violent and harmful images and material can, in a nutshell, take a significant toll on your body and mind, did not seem real to me. It can be humbling doing the research, becoming trained, and having real conversations with others who have shared the same experiences. With the right resources, well-being can be a reality.

From the basic things such as regular sleep, exercise, hydration, and nutrition, to doing the real work of being vulnerable and honest about difficult subjects, self-care can be hard work. But it’s worth it. Understanding how our brain and bodies work, how we process information and regulate our emotions is critical in managing stress, maintaining patience and having healthy relationships. Maintaining real connection with others, being grateful, and scheduling time to unplug is critical.

Whether it’s making the time to do a new activity and sticking to it, Facetiming with a friend, taking a drive somewhere else, spending time with a pet, eating a meal outdoors, watching a mindless tv show, reading a book for fun, listening to music, dancing in your living room, going for a walk . . anything to break the routine. Even a simple breathing exercise of deep breathing through the mouth or nose, hold for a few seconds and release out slowly from the nose, before or after a stressful event, can help. Who knew we had so many nerve receptors in our nose that can help calm us down?!

Find something to laugh about, something really funny, that puts a smile on your face (Seinfeld re-runs work for me). I don’t mean making fun of something or someone, I mean enjoying genuine humor in something each day. Becoming more mindful and present in each moment can be a real gift to melt away unnecessary stress. Inspiration and renewed sense of purpose come from within. I had to take responsibility for myself and how I was viewing the world through a smudged and broken lens.

I remember a case we put together for a mock court presentation to a group of attorneys, law enforcement officers, and doctors visiting from another country. The case involved the brutal starvation and torture of a little girl. It wasn’t even my case, but we read through the transcripts to reenact how a preliminary hearing would take place. I did not personalize it and likely stuffed it away somewhere in my brain as more of a script, not a real case. Weeks later, while in the grocery store and seeing a Boy Scout troop outside taking donations for food baskets to feed the hungry for the holidays, I burst into tears. It all came crashing down on me and I wept for the little girl that starved to death. I felt guilty with all the food in my basket. I couldn’t do anything for her. I suppose I’m still in recovery. But I allowed myself to grieve. Acceptance is a key step. Pure avoidance doesn’t work.

Heck, I don’t even have kids, but somehow, I saw every child in need out there as mine to protect, mine to seek justice on behalf of because someone had to do it. What I am so grateful for are the prosecutors that are doing the work now; that continue to fight for child victims; that don’t say “I can’t handle those cases.” But when their time comes to take a step back and realize the persistent invasion on their personal lives, I hope they utilize the tools and strategies to manage the work and take care of themselves. Use me as a cautionary tale. It’s a better way.

The next time I see a horrific headline, I will take a long breath and know what I can and can’t control, and then read on, holding a space for anger, sympathy and support for fellow prosecutors doing this important work.

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Pictured: Mary Ashley

Well-being Task Force Vice Chair, Mary Ashley, is a Deputy District Attorney with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office. Along with being a Board member of NDAA, Mary is also a member of the California District Attorneys Association and NDAA’s Vice Chair Women Prosecutors Section.

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

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