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Trauma-Informed Advocacy in Family Law

Updated: Oct 6, 2020

A photo of a gate at the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, NY.
Gate at Weeksville Heritage Center

For 21 years, the Children’s Law Center has been representing children in the New York City family court system, ensuring their voices are heard in complex legal decisions that have a profound impact on their lives. Most of these children are deeply touched by one or more traumatic experiences, including abuse, neglect, and the loss of parental figures. This trauma can have psychological and physiological impacts on youth during and long after the experience.

Karen Simmons, CLC’s Executive Director, has been building a vision for a trauma-informed advocacy approach at CLC. This approach seeks to understand and mitigate the effects of trauma in the lives of child clients and their families, to avoid retraumatization that can occur in the court system, and to support staff with the impact of vicarious trauma associated with their work.

In 2018, Simmons contracted with MindOpen Learning Strategies to bring CLC’s trauma-informed advocacy to the next level, with support from the NY Life Foundation’s Grief Reach program. Over the course of one year, MindOpen collaborated with CLC’s senior management team to develop and facilitate two all-staff retreats, two trainings for managers, follow-up individual supervisory coaching sessions, and a case conferencing approach designed to embed a trauma-informed, resiliency-focused lens in legal casework.

Courtney Ng, MindOpen’s Projects and Communications Consultant, sat down with Karen Simmons, Executive Director of Children’s Law Center, to discuss that experience and her learnings.

Courtney: What led you to want to engage MindOpen? What kinds of issues were coming up that made you want to bring in a trauma-informed approach?

Karen: I thought about MindOpen, in particular, working with Elizabeth, because I had the opportunity to go to a program that she did on trauma-informed approaches through Nonprofit New York. And what led me to that program was really looking at our practice and thinking about at the Children's Law Center, the work that we do representing children and the host of cases we do, and thinking about how these children aren't in isolation. They have adults, parents, or caregivers. It’s important for us to think about not just where our clients are at, but what might have happened in their caregivers’ lives that has caused them to react or behave in a particular way. In looking at the tenets of the trauma-informed approach, I thought, “Well, I think we need to kind of go on a journey as an organization.” I needed to go on that journey on my own first. I took her program, I did a lot of reading, and I kept introducing the topic here and there. Eventually, we put together a team on this, and created and administered a Trauma-Informed Advocacy Project survey. Some of the results surprised the managers because there was a twofold issue: the trauma we talked about surrounding our clients, but then there was the trauma staff identified experiencing. I reached out to Elizabeth in response to this-- I wanted her to help us craft our knowledge base as managers about trauma and how we could think about trauma-informed supervision.

Courtney: That’s so interesting. You’ve talked a little bit about what trauma-informed advocacy means. What would you say are the main reasons other organizations who do similar work should specifically look at this approach?

Karen: I think of it really through the lens of, how are you developing your staff? How are you developing them so they can stay in this work and have the boundaries to go home at night and not take it always with them? I know that when we talk about it, people were like, “Yeah, that sounds great. But you know, we don't have time, we've got all this other stuff to do.” I think to make your practice continue to evolve, you’ve got to make the time. I find that parent advocates get it. And they've been taking a path of trauma-informed work far longer than the child advocates.

You also have to look at the overall organization, including human resources function. Having Elizabeth embedded in our organization also let her help us see where some of our policies and procedures could be adapted. She was able to be a thought partner to our HR director in revising our performance management system. She also worked with me to bring Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging discussions into this work to see how this is related to being trauma-informed.

Courtney: Besides lack of time, do you think are other reasons why people resist trauma-informed approaches?

Karen: I also think part of it is that people already believe they are doing it. I think that was the biggest one. But I think it comes out differently when you try it so that you are thinking about steps.

Courtney: Looking back at the work you did with MindOpen, what were some of the wins or challenges of that process?

Karen: Developing the deliverables was a win. I really felt that Elizabeth took in the whole topic before she started saying, “this is what I could do.” Her listening is amazing. I also thought that she got the challenges of an organization. She's worked with far bigger ones than this one, but just the different dynamics and the other tensions around change.

With challenges, I think she embraced the resistance. We thought we had a really good plan. And it just went left. We had to try some things we hadn’t tried before to learn what worked and maybe what we weren’t ready for. Over time, Elizabeth built trust with our staff and especially attorneys who were wary of her at first.

Courtney: Did you hear any reactions from any of the people involved in either the training or the coaching?

Karen: At first, “Why are you having us do this? We’re busy.” Part of the training she did was to talk about slowing down in a traumatized environment. It's easy just to go into automatic pilot, right? That can be a vicarious trauma response and can affect our professional perspective and personal lives. She identified that over and over and over again. Trying to get people to move differently, I think, was, and is, still a challenge. I think we've made some steps. But we've got a lot more to do.

Courtney: When you say we've made some steps, what does that involve?

Karen: I think we can talk about wellness a lot easier. I think the current situation with the coronavirus is one example. How do we prepare to be prepared, even though we don't know what the emergency will be? Before we started this process, I had that framework, but I worked with Elizabeth to make sure that the tenets of it were laid out in a trauma-informed way. What’s in your control, and what’s not? We've trained on it. It still takes daily work to layer it and embed it, so everyone in the organization thinks this way.

I also told Elizabeth, “I think you’re trying to teach us how to have a retreat!” In our second retreat together, held at Weeksville, she recommended we focus on wellness and introduced us to EmergeSoul. It became a day where people could choose how they wanted to engage in self-care, and also really come together to be hopeful about how far we have come as an organization and the impact of our work for our clients and their communities. We also came away with more alignment across staff about historical trauma and specifically the need to include structural racism in our understanding of trauma.

Courtney: If an organization wanted to build out trauma-informed advocacy in their work, what would be a good starting point?

Karen: It starts with the leaders understanding the issues and laying the need out so that others can see that change is needed, even if they’re not 100% comfortable with it.

Courtney: That’s good advice. Anything else that came out of your work with Elizabeth that we didn’t cover?

Karen: One big win is she had us practice a case-conferencing protocol. It’s an interdisciplinary practice involving staff from across the agency-- attorneys, social workers, managers-- to review cases and go beyond the legal outcome to think through how we can intentionally use our time with clients to build their protective factors and resilience. We’ve tweaked it a little bit from what Elizabeth gave us, but it’s been really popular, and people ask for more. We’ve done three and have another one coming up. It’s a chance to connect and support one another and learn together.

To learn more about trauma-informed advocacy in children’s legal representation, request a free copy of the Children’s Law Center’s Learning Aid, created in collaboration with MindOpen. Would you like to integrate trauma-informed practices within your organization? Reach out to today.



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