Dealing with Clients’ Trauma: The View from Before the Court

By: Former Judge Leslie Spornberger Jones

My client seemed to disappear right before my eyes. All of a sudden, as I described the terms of a plea offer to her, her eyes glazed over, she looked past me distantly, and her recall for what I told her just seconds before evaporated. I couldn’t understand it. All I’d done was explain the two plea options the prosecutor had offered in her case.

Leslie Spornberger JonesThen I remembered what she told me when I was first appointed. Her husband had been murdered the year before. His death had nothing to do with her suspended license case, but it had everything to do with how she experienced the court process.

His death left her alone, hopeless, staring at a lot of unknowns. Her plea options also created a lot of unknowns. When would she ultimately get her driver’s license back? Would she be able to complete all the recommended probation requirements? Could she get the fines paid if she wasn’t able to work?

Recognizing she needed space to process everything, I changed my approach. I slowed down, double-checked to make sure she understood each term separately, took extra time asking her what she was comfortable with, and what concerns she had. Ultimately I assured her we would share her worries with the judge. Only when she was truly ready to enter the plea did we go forward.

Although my client was charged with a low level offense in municipal court, her recent trauma played a huge role in her ability to cope with being in court. Trauma like this can surface in virtually any type of case in any court. When it surfaces, “wounds from [the] past can… [manifest] as behaviors that frustrate judges and lawyers who are not familiar with the dynamics of trauma,” says Ruth D. Reichard, a Family Violence Resource Attorney in Indiana.

Athens Attorney James B. Cronon, who practices criminal and juvenile law, often representing parents faced with the loss of parental rights, doesn’t let trauma frustrate him. He takes the opportunity to focus on his client’s personal needs in each case. He says, “A lot of people who have suffered trauma, particularly from drug abuse, come through the courts.”

Cronon explains trauma can be intergenerational, and that poses special challenges. “Maybe the client suffered trauma when she was a kid, was in and out of the foster care system, had a mom using meth, now she’s using it, now she has kids.”

A person like this will need help parenting and coping, but may feel slighted by the system because the judge and DFCS, who knew her family and background, see her as an unfit mother, not a person who has also suffered. Being judged just as unfit, without seeing the trauma she has suffered, may retraumatize the client. This is especially true where the possibility of losing one’s parental rights looms over the case.

Particularly when representing parents in juvenile court who are subject to reunification plans, Cronon “always talks in terms of positives, affirming the innate humanity” of each of his clients. He explains, “I always give clients a ‘praise sandwich,’ focusing on what they have done right, rather than what they have done wrong. If he knows a client has experienced trauma, he points them to services that can give them the tools to learn how to cope with what they have suffered, including Family Dependency Court. Having a judge, court staff, and DFCS workers who understand trauma can make all the difference. If they see that person as someone who needs help, they can help the parent be successful.

Cronon is skeptical, though, of an approach that would dictate trauma assessments in all cases. “I wouldn’t want the court to just routinely do trauma assessments,” he says, because he believes that might result in rote reviews of cases that don’t end up helping the person suffering. What he prefers is individualized justice. Being aware of what trauma can do, and how it can play into court processes can allow the space for the individual to face the trauma and overcome it, is more likely to keep them out of court.

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