Providing legal representation to children and youth is incredibly important work and can be very rewarding. Whether you are representing children removed from their parents' custody due to abuse or neglect, children who are at risk of losing their education due to suspension or expulsion, children at risk of deportation, or children accused of committing a crime, the results of a case can have a huge impact on the future of the child you represent. However, these cases are also incredibly challenging and can be emotionally draining. The complexity of representing children cannot be overstated: Lawyers need to have a strong understanding of federal, state, and local law; child development; services for children; administrative law; trauma-informed care. . . ; and the list goes on. Further, the system in which lawyers for children work is often dysfunctional and does not always result in the best interest of the child, adding to the frustration and strain of this work. Given the demands of the representation as well as the worry we carry for our clients, it is easy to burn out. Thankfully, while it is still a relatively new topic for lawyers, we are beginning to realize that addressing compassion fatigue (or, as it is sometimes called, "secondary/vicarious trauma") is essential to providing ethical and zealous legal representation of children.
The effects of compassion fatigue are well documented. Compassion fatigue can affect self-esteem, relationships (personal and professional), attitude, and personal health. Those suffering from it can experience nightmares, depression, and anxiety. We may begin to lose empathy for clients or even for our own family members. To identify compassion fatigue in yourself considering the following warning signs:
• feeling despair
• not enjoying formerly pleasurable activities
• feeling stressed and anxious even after you leave your stressful environment
• having a pervasive negative attitude
• feeling overwhelmed
• inability to pay attention
• sleep disturbance
• questioning self-worth and professional identity
• feeling guilty and unfulfilled
If these things sound familiar, you may be experiencing compassion fatigue. This issue can also be commonplace in organizations representing children where there may be a culture of compassion fatigue. The good news is that there are ways to address this issue both personally and organizationally.
One of the first ways that you can address vicarious trauma is to take care of yourself. This can be very challenging for lawyers who are generally type A personalities who are very accustomed to working long hours and doing whatever it takes to assist their clients. Yet, we need to be aware that we cannot ethically represent our clients if we are experiencing burn out. Tips from professionals who work on addressing compassion fatigue include taking a walk, listening to music, pausing even briefly to take a few deep breaths, connecting with a friend or colleague who is positive, or finding other mindful activities (there are a lot of different apps to help with this). Organizations should also find ways to address compassion fatigue by doing things like pausing to celebrate victories and encouraging staff to take breaks when needed. Some organizations are even establishing mindfulness rooms where staff can go to take a break, even briefly. For more tips on addressing compassion fatigue, read Jennifer Baum's article from the Winter 2016 issue of this newsletter: "Compassion Fatigue: Caveat Caregiver?" For tips on addressing compassion fatigue as an organization, read Tamara Steckler and Vicki Light's article from the current issue of this newsletter: "The Hidden Cost of Empathy: How to Address Secondary Trauma Stress in a Child Law Office". While these tips may sound luxurious or unrelated to our work, they instead need to be seen as essential parts of our representation.
As if the above reasons were not enough to address our compassion fatigue, ensuring that we remain empathetic to the client in front of us, that we see him or her as an individual and relate to his or her issues, is one of the best ways that we can work against the implicit bias (see the Section of Litigation's Implicit Bias Initiative, What Is Implicit or Unconscious Bias?) that often affects our juvenile clients. If we can truly see our client, then we can ensure that the judge, school officials, social workers, prosecutors, and others in the case see our client as an individual as well, rather than through "implicit stereotypes and implicit attitudes" that each of us possesses. Section of Litigation, Implicit Bias Initiative.
There are many tools available to help address compassion fatigue so that lawyers can retain empathy for clients and continue to do this work long term. The key is recognizing that this is an issue that must be addressed if we are to ethically represent our clients and then giving ourselves and our coworkers permission to address it. Only when we take care of ourselves so that we are present and empathetic can we hear what our clients are telling us and work zealously to ensure a positive outcome for them.
To learn more, you can listen to the ABA program Addressing Compassion Fatigue: An Ethical Mandate.
Keywords: litigation, children's rights, compassion fatigue, empathy, burnout