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Vicarious trauma in the courts

September 23, 2020

In October of 2019 Karl Hade, Executive Secretary to the Virginia Supreme Court testified to a legislative committee on the need to improve the situation involving staffing for Virginia's lower courts (General District plus Juvenile & Domestic Relations). In describing the need for additional clerks and better pay for all clerks, he quoted comments made by current clerks based on a recent survey.

  • “Sometimes I do not sleep well at night because I worry about the cases I have heard and the people involved."
  • “This job requires you to be a counselor, teacher, public servant, manager, and referee while maintaining one’s own sanity…I had a customer spit at one of [my] deputy clerks. Many stories surrounding protective orders affect staff over time. The trauma takes time away from my family. It is difficult to concentrate or focus right after you spent the day dealing with difficult irate customers. I have become emotional over cases [I have] heard in court.”

Courts are the forum in which some of the most traumatic life experiences take place. As previously noted, courts can be a very stressful environment. In the literature, this condition is often referred to as secondary trauma or vicarious trauma and is becoming more recognized as a factor for all court staff. NCSC has recently examined existing programs and assembled best practices in this area. These include:

Secondary or Vicarious Trauma Among Judges and Court Personnel (Trends Online, April 2017) Written by an NCSC Knowledge and Information Services staff member, this piece focuses on techniques for identifying affected court personnel and techniques to alleviate vicarious trauma.

Trauma and State Courts (Trends Online, May 2018) Expanding on the 2017 piece, Trauma and State Courts looks at the impact failure to address secondary or vicarious trauma can have on judges and court staff and reiterates methods to address the issue.

Vicarious Trauma: The Silent Stressor (May 2012). As part of her Institute for Court Management Fellows Program, Tina Mattison expands on her 2011 in-depth research of California Superior Court Human Resources staff about the need and use of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). Interestingly, Mattison notes that at least one county provides in their job description the need for prospective employees to "tolerate exposure to: evidence and testimony that may be disturbing, such as photographs of murder scenes and victims; evidence that may include syringes, drugs, weapons and blood; defendants and witnesses who may potentially be verbally or physically abusive; allergens, such as perfumes and dust, and unpleasant odors, such as unwashed clothing, chemicals offered into evidence and unwashed people."

To share how you or your court are handling vicarious trauma follow the National Center for State Courts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest and share your experiences. For more information on this or other topics impacting state courts, contact Knowledge@ncsc.org or call 800-616-6164.