October 01, 2017

The Impact of Trauma on the Attorney-Client Relationship

National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Justice Consortium Attorney Workgroup Subcommittee

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Trauma can interfere with the formation of strong client-attorney relationships by impairing the client’s capacity to trust others, process information, communicate, and respond to stressful situations. As the child’s attorney, understanding trauma’s impact on behavior can help you modify your approach with traumatized clients, prepare clients for court proceedings in a way that reduces their likelihood of a traumatic response, and advocate for clients in a way that empowers them and helps build a sense of safety and resiliency. With adequate preparation, clients may feel empowered by the opportunity to tell their stories and receive empathy and effective support from the professionals involved. 

To establish an effective working relationship with traumatized clients, you should focus on physical and psychological safety, communication, and client support. 

Physical and Psychological Safety

When a client is reminded, either consciously or unconsciously, of a past trauma, that trigger may cause the client to feel as if she is in imminent danger. 

When traumatized clients feel physically or psychologically unsafe, they may become focused on protecting themselves and avoiding the perceived danger. As a result, they may not listen to or process information accurately, may refuse to talk, or simply agree to anything in order to leave. You can assist your client and establish a safe environment by providing structure and predictability, allowing the client to make informed decisions about his or her case whenever possible. 

Court hearings and other procedures in the child welfare system may inadvertently trigger or re-traumatize clients with trauma histories. For example, clients are frequently triggered by a perceived loss of control or power, such as court decisions made about placement or visitation. Therefore, you should give clients a clear voice in decisions related to their representation, elicit their views, and seek active, age-appropriate involvement. 

When triggered, clients may react in ways that are misinterpreted by the court. For example, a child may withdraw emotionally or physically (often described as freezing or shutting down) in response to questions about desire for contact with a parent. Or, a parent with a trauma history may shut down or react defiantly during cross-examination. A child placed in foster care, particularly an adolescent, may run away or act out in response to conflict with a foster parent or group home staff member. Judges, attorneys, and other professionals may view such a client as uncooperative or disinterested rather than as someone who is having a trauma response. You can advocate for clients by explaining to the court and the other parties that the client’s behavior is a reflection of underlying trauma. Decisions regarding such disclosures should be case-specific and within the bounds of attorney-client privilege and your specific attorney role. 

Some suggestions for increasing physical and psychological safety include: 

  • Meet in a quiet space where there are minimal distractions, away from other parties who may make your client feel threatened. 

  • Inform the client of the purpose of that day’s meeting, what to expect during the meeting, and how long the meeting will last. Several shorter meetings can build familiarity and be more productive than a single, longer meeting. Make sure to ask what questions the client may have. 

  • Explain the court process. Let the client know what you are going to say in court, questions you may ask the client, and questions the judge or opposing attorney may ask (particularly when you anticipate an adversarial cross-examination). Knowing what to expect can help your client feel less anxious during a hearing. Allowing the client time to practice responding and role-playing can increase a sense of control and safety. 

As part of explaining the court process to child clients, it is also important to provide a realistic understanding of the potential outcomes of a court hearing. It can be empowering for child clients to know that their attorney is listening to them and will express their wishes in court, but it is also important for them to be prepared for the possibility that those wishes may or may not be honored. Additionally, when child clients are not present for court hearings, it can be triggering for them to know there was a court date but not be informed about what happened at that hearing. Children and youth should attend their own hearings whenever possible. When their presence is not possible, it is important to provide information about what happened or some type of update in an age-appropriate manner. 

Communication

Clients who have experienced trauma may experience greater difficulty forming trusting relationships with their attorneys. Many youth in the child welfare system have been hurt by a caretaker or authority figure they trusted, and many parents distrust “the system.” Such clients may not believe that you will actually advocate for them. Clients also may be slow to share emotionally-charged information, or may not feel safe expressing preferences regarding their desired outcomes, such as visitation or placement. Developing an effective attorney-client relationship takes time and patience. 

You can learn to recognize signs that a client may be experiencing a trauma reaction so that you do not misinterpret or exacerbate the client’s response. Trauma reactions typically represent some version of fight, flight, or freeze. A client who suddenly becomes loud or combative may be going into “fight mode” in order to keep herself safe by pushing others away. Clients may go into “flight mode” and try to avoid a triggering situation by refusing to answer sensitive questions or attempting to leave a meeting or court hearing. Clients may also “freeze” by shutting down or dissociating (a common response to trauma when a person mentally shuts down or “goes elsewhere”). She may sit quietly but will no longer be paying attention. Do not assume that silence means the client understands or consents. 

Child participation in the court process is considered a best practice by national organizations such as the American Bar Association, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and National Association of Counsel for Children. A study in Nebraska found that children’s anxiety levels related to court participation were low overall and even lower for children who had attended court. The children who attended court also viewed the judgments as more fair. A recent New Jersey study showed that court participation is not upsetting for youth, but can provide an opportunity for them to be heard. It also provides better information to both the youth and the court.1

Client Support

Parents and children who are involved in the child welfare system may still have strong attachments to and pleasant memories of family members. In fact, a child can remain emotionally attached to a dysfunctional family and may be further traumatized by complete loss of contact with relatives. Family members can offer the best source of long-term support for a traumatized child. It is essential that a child stay connected with siblings, relatives and extended family (as defined by the client), and friends. In cases in which ongoing family contact is not feasible or is contraindicated for safety reasons, you can look for ways to involve other people trusted by your client, such as a family friend, coach, teacher, or pastor. 

Finally, be aware that some clients may find the experience of court involvement traumatizing, whether from memories of past involvement, interactions with or observations of others in the courthouse, and especially the intensity of the courtroom environment itself. Trauma triggers might include an attorney’s behaviors, tone of voice, body language or approach to questioning. You can take steps to make your clients more comfortable and to recognize when clients are having a trauma reaction. 

Client Resiliency

Despite trauma histories and traumatic stress reactions, clients are often resilient. Your actions during legal proceedings can further bolster resiliency. Whether through advocacy for treatment or facilitating a client-attorney relationship that conveys awareness of traumatic stress reactions, promoting a psychologically safe environment using the above strategies can support your clients’ improved management of traumatic stress reactions.

Endnotes

1American Bar Association. Youth Participation in Court: Protocol Pilot Project, 2014.

Practice Tips to Avoid Triggering Clients with Prior Trauma 

  • Look for signs of trauma reactions. As discussed in this section, clients may exhibit variations of the fight, flight, or freeze response. 

  • Try not to startle the client. Loud noises (including yelling), sudden movements (jumping up from a chair), or unexpected news can all trigger trauma responses. 

  • Prepare the client for what is ahead. Predictability is important to establishing a trusting relationship. Preparation can help minimize your client’s hypervigilance to threats from unfamiliar or unexpected sources. 

  • Minimize touching the client. You may intend to be supportive when you put your arm around a child or touch a parent’s shoulder, but that can trigger a reaction in people who have been physically or sexually abused. By respecting your client’s personal space, you can help build the client’s sense of control and safety. 

  • Do not overpromise or tell the client “everything will be fine.” This includes promising clients you will always be there for them. Attorneys frequently change. Be honest in your communications because clients may be triggered by feeling let down or misled by their attorney. Remember that clients’ behaviors may also be influenced by the expectation that you will inevitably disappoint them, so be honest and forthright from the start. 

Trauma Resources

American Bar Association. ABA Policy on Trauma-Informed, Evidence-Based Approaches for Justice System-Involved Children and Youth, February 2014.

ABA Center on Children and the Law, Polyvictimization and Trauma-Informed Advocacy Project. Practical resources include webinars, publications, policies, and presentations.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Justice Consortium Attorney Workgroup Subcommittee. Trauma: What Child Welfare Attorneys Should KnowLos Angeles, CA, and Durham, NC: National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, 2017.

Kraemer, T. & E. Patten. “Establishing a Trauma-Informed Lawyer-Client Relationship (Part One).” ABA Child Law Practice 33, 2014. 

Kraemer, T. & E. Patten. “Communicating with Youth Who Have Experienced Trauma (Part Two).ABA Child Law Practice 33, 2014. 

Reitman, K. A. Attorneys for Children Guide to Interviewing Clients: Integrating Trauma Informed Care and Solution Focused Strategies. Utica, NY: Child Welfare Court Improvement Project, New York State Unified Court System, 2011. Available from 

This article was adapted from: National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Justice Consortium Attorney Workgroup Subcommittee. Trauma: What Child Welfare Attorneys Should Know. Los Angeles, CA, and Durham, NC: National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, 2017.