Childhood trauma has a vast impact on family law cases. Family lawyers with a thorough understanding of the interaction between childhood trauma and family law can better serve clients by more quickly and efficiently identifying the causes of questionable parenting choices, which are often at the center of custody and placement disputes.
A trauma-informed approach allows family lawyers to identify the needs of parents suffering from the effects of his or her own childhood trauma. The approach requires careful observation of parent’s behavior, communication regarding parental needs, active listening, and providing a safe legal and emotional environment for parents to disclose trauma history.
Lauren L. Otte, Marquette 2017, is an associate attorney with Karp & Iancu S.C., in Milwaukee, where she practices in divorce, paternity and post-judgment issues.
The trauma-informed approach allows a family lawyer to empower and assist parents to seek professional services to deal with emotional issues. Generic interventions, such as parenting classes, anger management, and substance abuse counseling may not be effective if the parent’s underlying trauma issues are not considered before treatment.
Parents who understand the significance of their past trauma and the connection to current behavior may be more motivated to make positive changes.1 Practitioners should also familiarize the court with the process, scope, and availability of trauma-informed treatment.
Measuring Childhood Trauma
Childhood trauma is quantified by measuring the number of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) – negative occurrences – in childhood, such as:
physical, emotional, and sexual abuse;
emotional and physical neglect;
violence between adults in the home;
a household member who is depressed, mentally ill, suicidal, incarcerated, or has a substance abuse issue; and
parental separation or divorce.
Children with a high number of ACEs are more likely to have impaired mental and physical health, poor school and work success, and lower socioeconomic status in adulthood.2
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released the results of a 2015-2017 survey of more than 144,000 adults from 25 states. The survey found that 60.9% adults reported at least one ACE, and 15.6% of adults reported four or more.
The study found that ACEs are associated with socioeconomic challenges, poorer health outcomes, depression, substance abuse and lower educational attainment. Even more grim, the study found that ACEs are closely tied to heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, diabetes and suicide.3
The Secondary Trauma: Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue, also known as vicarious trauma or secondary trauma stress, can especially affect judges, attorneys, and guardians ad litem who handle family law matters.
Compassion fatigue is caused by regular exposure to human induced trauma through victim stories, reports, and descriptions of traumatic events, and evidence of trauma.
This is distinguished from burnout, which is predictable, builds over time, and results in work dissatisfaction. Rather, compassion fatigue has a narrower focus, can cause harm based on the area of work, and result in a change in world view.4
Understanding Your Own Trauma
Family law practitioners should be aware of the effects of compassion fatigue, which can negatively impact lawyers’ abilities to best serve their clients. It’s vital to regularly self-assess for symptoms, such as:
disturbing and intrusive thoughts;
emotional detachment and withdrawal;
professional demoralization; and
Practitioners should debrief with other attorneys, participate in self-care, maintain a healthy work/life balance, and reach out to professional assistance programs, such as the State Bar’s Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP), which provides free confidential assistance, if necessary.
1 National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Child Welfare Committee. (2011). Birth Parents with Trauma Histories and the Child Welfare System: A Guide for Judges and Attorneys. Los Angeles, CA, and Durham, NC: National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.
2Adverse Childhood Experiences in Wisconsin: 2011-2015 Behavioral Risk Factor Survey Findings, May 2018. Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board, Madison, Wisconsin.
3 Gabby Galvin, CDC: Childhood Trauma Tied to Poor Health, U.S. News & World Report, Nov. 5, 2019.
4Compassion Fatigue, American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, Aug. 23, 2017.