Vicarious Trauma

I wrote recently about judicial bullying. There were many reasons I did not give details of my experience, but it was partly to protect the bully. We all know that bullying is a sign that something may be going on for the bully. They are often unhappy themselves for one reason or another. Though it affected me deeply I have always instinctively felt the behaviour I experienced was not typical of the judge who meted it out.

 

Wellbeing at the bar is recently being taken very seriously. This is a good thing. I commend the dedicated wellbeing site to anyone working in the field – not just the bar. At the family bar Cyrus Larazideh QC has been heavily involved in this work, and his account of his own personal professional experiences at the bar (given through presentations, one of which was delivered at the FLBA conference last month and reduced many in the audience to tears), is a stark reminder that all of us – lawyers, judges, social workers – are at risk of vicarious trauma through a toxic combination of difficult events in our personal lives (divorce, bereavement, overwork) and the chronic impact of the traumatic material we are exposed to and emotional content of our work. Judges who bully have all the pressures that we have, but added to that is the fact that the buck stops with them. We can at least go home and unburden ourselves (to a degree) by repeating the mantra that we did the best job within our power, and ultimately it was the judge’s decision not ours. The judge has no such psychological fallback – although she can tell herself that she too has done the best with the available information and resource, its still their call.

 

I’ve been contacted by a number of journalists asking if I wanted to talk more about my experience of bullying. My answer was no. I’ve said my piece and my point was about the impact of the bullying. It wasn’t about retribution or naming or blaming, merely about identifying a harmful phenomenon. A phenomenon that is symptomatic of a wider problem. The pressure of work for all judges is pretty intolerable these days, but for those dealing with work of a traumatic nature, which care work often is, the risks to emotional health and wellbeing must be much higher. I don’t know if any statistics have been gathered and published but my impression is that judicial sickness absence is rising markedly. It is entirely unsurprising.

 

It is striking that we see and note the high rate of burnout in child protection social work every day – social workers are on long term sick leave (we all know what that means) or they move up the management tree to maintain sufficient distance to keep their sanity. In doing so sometimes they lose their connection and ability to empathise with the individual families they are working with, that is so vital to good social work practice. We can all spot those who have brought the shutters down to save themselves. But we aren’t so good at reflecting on how the same issues may affect other professions working with traumatised and dysfunctional families. Lawyers don’t go into the unsafe, dirty houses from where children are removed, but we meet the families, hear their stories, we watch the interviews of abused children, we see the xrays of broken bones, the post mortem images. We witness the devastation when the placement order is made – even where it is blindingly obvious that this is the right and only safe option for a child (which is certainly not in all cases) a loving parent’s life is still devastated in that moment, in that court room. We are not immune. And the day I become immune is probably the day I should give up the day job.

 

The extent to which we become desensitized in our work has been brought home to me recently when I joined various Facebook groups where parents go to seek support when involved with family courts or with social services. We see clients at court, when they are trying their hardest to put on a brave face and behave calmly and rationally. They don’t always succeed, but this is their best stage managed self. We don’t see them in the wee small hours when they are desperate and confused and willing to ask anyone they can find on the internet for help and advice, or venting about everything that has befallen them. But when you join those groups you see those parents do just that again and again with alarming regularity and with familiar themes recurring and recurring. Laying bear their rawest emotion, their fear and their trauma, displaying (often unknowingly) their vulnerability and lack of insight into their own problems and the mechanics of what is happening around their family. To see so many people so lost and so confused and so despairing that the family courts can help them is profoundly disturbing and upsetting, and it has rocked my emotional boat. It unsettles the internal narrative that we are setting the world right one client at a time, nudging clients and judges in the right direction for the benefit of the client and their child. The idea that we are making any difference at all or getting anything right is seriously challenged by this stream of people whose experience is just at odds with it. We are a tiny boat and they are the refugees bobbing up and down in ocean. We cannot fit more than a few in our boat and most of those we drag on board will be half drowned anyway. If we capsize we are all done for – so don’t take on more than you can, keep the work life balance balanced. I have to ignore most of them.

 

It doesn’t even matter if their understanding of the law or the advice that they receive is howlingly wrong or ridiculous. It is the sheer volume. If this many people experience the law as unjust how can we insist it is just? Like throwing them an invisible life jacket.

 

I haven’t left these groups, but I may turn off notifications. From time to time I venture in to respond to one or two, to offer some pointer or explanation that I think might be useful. But I feel as if I am failing in doing so.

 

Over the years I’ve realised that talking about my work through blogging is reparative, it helps with the management of vicarious trauma, it helps me to process what I do, its purpose, and I think it helps me to carry on doing it without bringing that shutter down. But here on the blog I can choose what topics to write about and when, I can control what I tackle and what I keep in a box. Back in the Facebook groups it is like an unstoppable tsunami of grief and anger and it is almost overwhelming.

 

 

I have written an article for The Transparency Project about the Facebook groups for Family Law Journal – forthcoming in January 2018. Once published by Jordans the publishers have kindly given permission for it to be published on The Transparency Project website.

 

 

10 thoughts on “Vicarious Trauma

  1. Thank you for acknowledging this.
    I have no doubt that a significant percentage of those complaining are people who cannot take responsibility for their own mistakes. That’s what I believed until my experience ended in a dreadful shock.
    There is no justice for a LIP who cannot afford to appeal or who has no one by her side to tell her that she has grounds for appeal.
    My experience was a mockery throughout and I have no voice. It still amazes me that all of these professionals do not routinely have child development training or trauma training. So many don’t understand the horrific trauma inflicted on a child who is emotionally abused. Did you know that emotionally neglected children often look like model pupils at school? Why don’t we know this?

    The system shouts regularly about the children’s best interests and yet has absolutely no idea about development, trauma or the impact of ACEs. And there is no consistency.

    Of course it all comes down to money in the end. There’s no money for cases to be seen by a panel of judges (to reduce the judge’s unconscious bias impacting the case) or for a suitably trained psychologist to identify the impact on the child of any possible decision.

    It’s just unbearably sad and I wish I could “turn off notifications” in my life experience. I don’t mean that flippantly – I absolutely understand why you need to do this for your own sanity, so you can be effective for those clients you can save. But you’re right – there is a BIG problem and it cannot be dismissed by trying to believe that everyone is just bitter, so thank you.

  2. I am sorry that you have found it traumatising to experience second hand in the FB groups, the despair, pain and utter utter desperation of, as you say, SO MANY parents. The FC experience seems to damage all who participate in it with the exception of the most hard hearted. But on the positive side, these experiences will, I hope better inform your knowledge base and professional decision making long term. And, will have given you a smidging of a taste of the ongoing anguish which us FC vicitms live with day and day out relentlessly. I say victims because the experience completely traumatises you, and in our case, has left us with ongoing symptoms of PTSD. And yet, we still have the child, but know that at any time, for reasons not directly related to us, but to a third party, it could all go pear shaped, and we might lose the child. Like your, with the FB groups in the end I had to turn notifications off as the raw pain of so many ppl in such pain was compounding my own, even though I was in the groups trying to help where I could. I don’t have a law degree, but I do have a 2:1 Bachelors degree, and then some. And because of our own needs I have and still do read extensively on residency contact and FC issues and keep up with the latest research as well, and like you I pop back into the groups sometimes to try and disseminate useful info. But the tragedy is that a large majority of the victims of the FC who turn to the FB groups for help, are the least able because of their circumstances and education to be able to use the info. That fact feeds into my own despair about the entire system each time and I have to withdraw again. I hope Lord Chief Justice Munby and his soon to be successor are reading this, because I want them to know from a very well educated and very professionally experienced child welfare worker, victim of the FC, that the FC process is not just broken for and traumatising the children and their parents for a lifetime, it is killing people. Literally. It is killing the children it fails. It is killing parents. Parents who have been driven in despair to suicide, even a mother who died from stress in court. Even I. I on our worst day ended up spending three hours in the resuscitation section of the local A&E after collapsing from the stress and my heart going haywire. We must have COMPLETE transparancy in the FC. The secrecy MUST end. Because that is the only way we will end the lying by social workers in court, not to mention vindictive exs. The way secrecy operactes now, it is NOT protecting children and it is allowing untold, un-neccessay, unquantifiable damage to be done to so many children on an ongoing basis in the name of ‘justice and welfare’. I don’t just think so, I know so on a daily basis, day in and day out right now. When the court case is over and done and duster for the SW, the Judge and the lawyer, it is NOT over for the child. They are scarred for life. Having been already traumatised by life events, their voice has not been heard and in their absence they have been handed down a life sentence, under the false guise of ‘protection’. If the age of criminal responsibity for a child is age 10, then from age 10 onwards a child should be allowed to appear in person before a judge for their voice to be heard personally and directly, with the judge looking them directly in the face when giving their judgement. As for complete transparancy – it should be the norm unless both parents voluntarily request that the poroceedings and outcome are not made public. We need transparency to ensure that adquate checks and balances are in place and working. And working soley in the best interests of the child and, with their participation in proceedings.

    • I’m sorry to hear about your experience MeMe.
      I cannot imagine what it must be like to experience this stuff first hand rather than second hand as I have. Second hand is bad enough.

  3. You’ve got me thinking, Lucy. You do that a lot. That’s probably why I check Pink Tape so much!

    Nobody has made me qualify into Care Law. I asked for a seat in it, sure, but only because I had only done private family before that and I ‘just wanted to see what it was like’. Turns out I love it. Now my whole career looks different.

    Why should I love it? You’ve thoughtfully explored just how much human pain and horror and misery we are brushing past on a daily basis. I remember a call from a client on the way home from her Placement Order hearing, what was said, and the reporting letter I wrote afterwards. I could offer no hope. No escape. No alternative. What do you even put at the end? of a letter like that “Thank you for your kind instructions”? “Good luck for the future”? I could offer nothing. The Law had finished with her. Her legal aid was about to be discharged. The end.

    I can only conclude I love how much the work 1) matters and 2) challenges me. It’s hard to conceive of another area of law where the work you do matters so much to the people you do it for.

    Then – the absolute thrill of taking a new client call and being in Court for that client two hours later. The challenge of unpicking a sloppy threshold document. The hope of a receiving a rehabilitation plan to send to the client with an encouraging covering letter. It blends emotional intelligence and intellectual thought in a way I can see myself enjoying for years to come.

    Ultimately, it’s something I would like to ask more of the lawyers I come into contact with. Why this? Why pass up the chance to earn four times as much using that brain in another area?

    Lucy – if I may, especially after this post. Why family law in general and Legal Aid Care in particular? It’s a personal question I wouldn’t expect an answer.

    • I fell into family law by accident – a happy accident though. I did not want to do family law at all. But I found my pupillage was not what I had been promised and that is what I got. I had a reasonable employment / discrimination practice at the outset that I ran alongside the family law, and I used to do the whole range of family – but over time I’ve shed the employment and stopped doing the money work and I just do the children. Because I found I was actually quite good at it – far better than I would have been with some other area of law. And because it was the only work that really made me passionate. I always struggled to get worked up on behalf of rich people who thought their ex was keeping too much of the loot. Boo hoo you can’t afford the manicure and the gardener. But your relationship with your kids – with your parents – is so important. And even though there are many clients for whom we cannot achieve their much wanted outcome, we can and do make a difference a little bit some of the time. And we connect. For some clients it really matters that we fight for them, that they matter enough to be fought for. Even if they do not “win”. I *should* have stuck with the money work, but my heart wasn’t in it. No point in doing it if your heart isn’t in it, is there?

      • If only they all felt and thought like you………….. although I do know a solicitor now, who shares your passion and commitment Unfortunately we are having to have a meeting with her on Monday due to the continuing shennanigans of a third party……. This ‘balance of probabilities’ in the FC needs getting shot of. We need the same standards for and rules of evidence as exist in the criminal courts, and a ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ at the very least. When you are tearing children away from their families how can it possibly be allowed to be ”on the balance of probabilities’? Evidence should and must be provided and full examined for every accusation made against a parent by the other parent, or a SW. Parents find themselves in the FC accused of criminal offences i.e. the abuse or maltreatment or neglect of a child and yet are not given the same recourse as in the criminal courts, and are not innocent until proven guilty, but are found guilty oft-times on the say-so of a social worker without any hard evidence. WHY? Someone- better educated than me – tell me why, because my despite all my own qualifications I CANNOT get my head around that fact. Why are evidential standards in FC so low, and are not comparable with criminal law courts? Or is it a bit of a rhetorical question? Like why is the UK one of only two European countries that practises adoption without parental consent?

        • I will do my best to answer your question but I appreciate that the answer does not satisfy some people and is a valid cause for debate about whether or not such a system can every be described as ‘just’.

          In a nutshell, the reason is that if we had to prove every element beyond reasonable doubt, then children might suffer serious harm or die.

          In criminal law we accept that guilty people ‘get off’ due to of lack of evidence because criminal cases look to punish past conduct and the ‘consequence’ of getting it wrong is that somebody doesn’t go to prison when they should. As a society, we have decided we can live with that because it means that were are much less likely to send people to prison who don’t deserve it.

          However, family Courts look to prevent future harm. Therefore, the consequence of getting it wrong is that the state is powerless to protect a child from a harmful parent and it might be too late to stop that parent from seriously injuring that child – or killing them.

          Ultimately, the Court had to decide what was worse – parents losing their children when they did nothing wrong, or children losing their lives because nobody could prove the risk beyond a reasonable doubt. It decided the latter was worse. Others disagree and that disagreement is –
          in my view – entirely legitimate.

          • Thank you Adam. In theory, great. In practice, abominable. The sentiment and reasoning behind ‘on the balance of probabilities’ on the surface seems laudible enough. However, it appears to us after family 16 court hearings before 13 different judges (ten of which were as LIP), as it also appears to many others who have had to go through the FC process, that, the assumptions behind ‘on the balance of probabilities’ instead of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ in point of fact, provides in the main, more protection for the SWs involved in child protection, against their getting it wrong and as a consequence a child sadly dying, than anything else.
            Because of the failing in how the current FC system works, parents are not reporting their concerns over their child’s welfare or taking other action to try and protect their child because they are terrified of being (falsely) accused of parental alienation and the equally false presumption that they are causing their child emotional and/or pyscholological dsamage by virtue of this. Women not reporting DV to the police until after an average of 32 DV attracks by their partner also is also predicated on fear – not just of fear of the abuser, but also of the fear that as a result of the DV they will lose their child via LA intervention. (At this point I am minded of Prof Andy Bilson’s – University of Central Lancashire – report on the repeated removal of subsequent children from mothers by LAs). ( And Prof. Liz Trinder’s report on child contact ?2014).

            All children involved in FC proceedings deserve to full protected by that process. That isn’t happening now. Children are suffering all day every day as consequence. FC needs to be fully transparent. It needs to have the same standards of evidence as a criminal court at the very least. It needs proceedings to be video recorded as a matter of routine. That will go a LONG way to stopping exploitation or manipulation of the system by anyone involved, be it a vindictive parent, SW, lawyer or Judge.

            It also needs every SW to be required by law to wear a body camera when interacting with children and their families. In the police forces where officers wear body cams, accusations against police officers dropped, so no SW should have anything to fear by wearing one. Also any police personnel interviewing a child in relation to any disclosure of harm should also have to wear a body cam when that interview is conducted outside of police premises.

            And please… don’t sing the praises of SWs to me after having multiple complaints upheld against an LA. Yes we know there are a lot of honest and conscientous SWs in the field who do a great job protecting children. But it only take ONE to ruin a child’s life for ever. Oh and what did Ofsted say last year about the majority of LAs failing to protect children……….. for whatever reason, fiscal or bad management…. and Judge Munby’s criticism of LAs misuse of section 20s? There is no excuse for the everyday suffering being caused to children by poor decisions being made by LAs and in the FCs.

  4. In Clinical Psychology training we are prepared (to some degree) to manage the emotional toll that working with people in distress can bring. We are encouraged to consider and engage in personal therapy and supervision in order to understand the reasons why we want to do this work, the impacts of it, and what we each ‘bring’ to our work. I believe that this really assists in developing a reflective approach to work and in developing a degree of resilience when confronted with the human condition in all it’s hue.
    I would recommend (well of course I would!) talking, maybe in therapy or with colleagues/supervisors about these impacts. Blogging may fulfill the same function and I am struck by the irony of this in the wake of your recent (really interesting) posts about SWT. Ventilation, without the therapist/supervisor’s ‘containment’ may not lead to self-reflection but rather to ‘acting out’.
    Sorry for the jargon!

  5. I gear what you are saying about the balance of probability.

    However, how should it work for a parent like me?

    I have 8 children. When we went to court 4 lived with me.

    I agreed to the elder 2 going to live with their father so I could concentrate on keeping my youngest 2.

    The l.a applied for removal with I.c.o and it was refused.

    An I.s.o was issued instead.

    The l.a applied a second time.

    Again the judge refused.

    The l.a applied a THIRD time (same proceedings) and was refused… yet told if the psychologist agreed with the l.a concerns then the court would look at the placement order the l.a decided (halfway through proceedings)

    Of course the psych said what the l.a wanted.
    The psych made it clear that she could not see why I had not had my children removed already.

    My own barrister (other professionals) helped the l.a to rewrite the threshold document because “as it stands the threshold is not met”

    So on the balance that there was no grounds to order I.c.o and removal, is it then RIGHT that the judge grants a placement and adoption order?

    I do not feel that it is.

    Thank you all for reading.

    I am not blameless, however, the l.a have failed my family since 1972…
    Failed myself since 1981
    Failed my children since 2001

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