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Helping Professionals And Secondary Trauma

Everyone knows that professionals who work with trauma every day are impacted significantly by that trauma.  There are high burn-out rates for all fields of social services because of the trauma witnessed and experienced by those professionals.  This concept is nothing new.  What was new for me recently was another, related realization regarding trauma and domestic violence advocates.

Whenever I’m asked to speak a bit about the impact domestic violence has on children, I always talk about PTSD.  I’m not a clinician, so I don’t get into the diagnostic criteria, etc. about the issue.  I talk more about how we as a culture have grown to understand PTSD and trauma.  We as a culture grew to recognize that there was a cluster of symptoms that tended to occur together among people who had been through a significant trauma—things like flashbacks, exaggerated startle response, re-experiencing the trauma, etc.  We made the connection between these symptoms and trauma, and the world of psychology named it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Well, PTSD really came to the front of our collective minds after the Viet Nam war, when soldiers were returning to the U.S.  We, as a society, noticed that many of these soldiers had this cluster of symptoms related to trauma.  We asked ourselves then, “Why now?  Why the Viet Nam war?  What’s different?”  Certainly the U.S. had fought in other wars.  Well, the answer to that question about what was different was—the way the soldiers were received upon returning from war was different.  Veterans from other wars were welcomed back home to the U.S. with parades and received a hero’s welcome.  Veterans of the Viet Nam war were met with protests and even hatred by some.

What this taught us about trauma is this:

The level of negative impact a trauma has on a person as well as the length of time a person struggles with lasting impact from a trauma is significantly impacted by HOW A PERSON IS RECEIVED AFTER EXPERIENCING A TRAUMA.  Now, this is very clearly and simply illustrated if one looks at the basic example of two little girls who are both sexually abused at the age of 5.  One of those little girls is immediately protected from the abuser and comforted and supported.  The other little girls is called a slut and told the abuse was her fault or maybe isn’t believed at all.  Everybody understands that the little girl who is unsupported will have a much more significant struggle with that trauma for a much longer time—perhaps throughout her life—than the little girls who is supported, believed and protected.  Even if the trauma itself is the same, the way a person is received after the trauma has a significant impact on how the person will be affected by the trauma both immediately and long term.

How this understanding of trauma can then be applied to children who witness or experience domestic violence is as follows:

Think about the trauma of a natural disaster—like a tornado that rips through a town.  Members of that community take up collections for the families who’ve lost their homes after the tornado.  People get together and rebuild homes, start funds at banks, and rally around those victims of that natural disaster that is traumatic.  The rallying in support of those victims helps to soften the impact that trauma has on those victims.

Now think about the child who is living in a home with domestic violence.  The figurative tornado rips through the living room tonight, and nobody from the community comes over tomorrow to patch the hole in the wall or rebuild the coffee table that was shattered in the violence.  In fact, often nobody speaks of it at all.  Domestic violence is cloaked in silence.  The child is left to wonder if they themselves are to blame for the trauma.  Sometimes they’re actually told they are to blame.  And the very people put in children’s lives to protect them from trauma are actually the people who caused the trauma.  And then the tornado comes back through tomorrow night, too.  So, the trauma is repeated over and over again, with no rallying support of the most vulnerable victims—the children.

Understanding this helps us to understand why domestic violence is a particularly hurtful kind of trauma for children.  It makes logical sense that children have a lasting impact from living through domestic violence.

Now here’s how all this information and understanding can help us understand the unique trauma experienced by some helping professionals, like our staff at Genesis House:

As I stated above, we all understand that helping professionals experience secondary trauma and high burn out rates because of all the trauma they witness and experience in their work every day.

But victim service providers, particularly domestic violence advocates have an added layer of this trauma experience.  That added layer has to do with the piece of how they are received by others while doing their work.  You see, domestic violence advocates are often treated with great animosity and even hatred by others in the community—sometimes people in the general population and sometimes other “professionals” in various fields.  And this awful treatment absolutely influences how severely the advocate is affected by the trauma they experience as well as how significant the lasting impact of that trauma is on the advocate.

This isn’t a notion I’ve just come up with.  Leaders in this work—entities like the Ohio Attorney General’s office and the Ohio Domestic Violence Network—have sharply increased their focus on secondary trauma of victim advocates, and particularly domestic violence advocates, in recent years.  They know it’s a serious issue that we need to attempt to address if we’re to be responsible in doing this work.  So, all of us in this field have had this concept of trauma in the front of our minds for awhile now.  It’s just been very recently that I made the connection about how our staff are received by the community and how that negatively impacts the well-being of our staff in such a real way.

The last two employees of Genesis House who have resigned after having been solid advocates—people who really believe in this work and who want to make a difference in the lives of those we serve—have explained while resigning that it wasn’t the work, or the agency, or even the trauma they had to experience in doing the work that caused them to want to leave.  They explained that it was the environment in which they had to do the work that had become unbearable for them.  These two people had outreach positions in the community.  Our shelter workers are shielded a bit from this experience, but our outreach workers face a backlash daily that magnifies their trauma experience significantly.

Most people can’t imagine this.  I think most people know that by the nature of the work we do, our advocates see the most horrifying things you could dream up in your imagination.  We see it on a regular basis.  We see the injuries that result, the scars from lifelong experiences of this kind of savagery, and we also witness the impact on human lives.  We hear the nightmares at night, and see the psychological breaks that often come when one is broken down so badly.  But most people can’t imagine how badly our advocates are then treated by others when they step into the community.  I remember a colleague and friend said to me one time after reading something I had shared on social media about a negative interaction I had, “I can’t believe the way you’re treated.”  She would never have imagined that we are met with such hatred regularly if I hadn’t shared a bit.

Here are some examples of how our advocates are received:

Our community educator goes into schools and presents an evidence-based curriculum on dating violence to students.  Schools are mandated to provide dating violence education via House Bill 19.  Some schools and teachers are welcoming and supportive, and other teachers stand behind our educator and roll their eyes at everything she says, interrupting her to argue periodically.  Other teachers sit through the entire presentation and then contradict everything our educator says as soon as she’s done, using language she’s just described as abusive and victim-blaming.  The trauma our community educators experience is hearing the stories of victimization shared by youth who feel safe enough to reach out after hearing a presentation, or seeing a family in shelter who came in just because one of the children in the home sat through a presentation at school and went home to tell their mother there is a safe place for them to go.  These experiences are heartbreaking and traumatic, and what magnifies that trauma experienced by our staff is feeling like some days those life saving messages are negated the minute they leave her mouth.  Sometimes, schools even forbid our educators from saying some things that are part of the evidence-based curriculum, simply because they don’t agree, or a parent has disagreed with something.

Our Legal Advocates are in court every day.  They share with me that some attorneys approach them regularly to say things like, “Don’t you get tired of knowing that every single client you work with is a lying sack of crap?”  I walked into a municipal court this past year and had a security officer for the court  tell me how she “doesn’t believe a word any victim says—they’re just as bad as the defendants!”  I shared this story with the administrative judge in that court, who did nothing at all.  One of our former Legal Advocates was bi-lingual.  On his FIRST DAY on the job, I was walking him through the court he’d be stationed in and a white male attorney walked up to us, leaning into the face of my advocate and said, “This is America!  We don’t press one for English—you LEARN IT!!”  Police officers (from a department I personally have publicly supported on countless occasions) came to a training Genesis House was holding and were disrespectful and disruptive throughout the whole training.  Other attendees of that training even described the behavior of those officers as “disgusting” after they left.  When approached about their behavior back at the department, they simply called my staff “man haters” and weren’t held accountable in any way.  Attorneys in court have yelled out “feminazi” as I’ve walked into conference rooms in courts.  A judge has told me that domestic violence is a “hard crime for (him) to care about.”  Just this Spring, a magistrate in Domestic Relations Court inserted himself into a presentation I attended to honor National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, and went on and on to the room of attendees about how he believes that the justice system is stacked against men, so he chooses to refuse to include children on Domestic Violence Civil Protection Orders—even if the man determined to be a danger has no legal rights to the child anyway—just as one of his efforts to “even things out a bit”.

You see, I could go on and on with examples—we have these experiences every day in some way.  For domestic violence advocates, it’s not just that the tornado keeps coming back day after day, it’s that too many people in the world are trying to encourage the tornado to reappear as often as possible.  Too many people are making rules saying community members aren’t allowed to help rebuild the houses that have been destroyed.  Too many people are telling my staff that the people we see with broken bones, stitches and staples, bruises and wounds, that it’s their fault, and our fault for helping them.  As a result, the trauma gets too big for some of our team to continue doing this work.  Provided with a choice, how many people would want to?

So, having had this realization about our team at Genesis House—that the way they are received has a significant impact on the trauma they experience—I’ve made it a goal of mine this fiscal year to incorporate as many practices and traditions as possible to work against this trauma. We’ve always done things like this, but it’s clear to me that our team needs support now more than ever.  I’m going to make a big effort to increase the good to try and outweigh the bad.  You can help by speaking out against this hostility whenever it presents itself.  Become part of the community that comes in to rebuild after the tornado rips through.  Please join me in confronting and interrupting victim-blaming hatred and hostility every time you see it.  Don’t remain neutral. As Elie Wiesel wisely advised, “Always take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor never the tormented.”

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