Exposure to trauma is endemic in capital defense work. Those facing capital punishment have often experienced severe and continuous traumatic events throughout life. Mitigation specialists and other defense team members must excavate these experiences and learn about them from clients and their loved ones in order to fully understand the clients’ lives.
Beyond the impact of constant exposure to the trauma of others, capital defense work itself can inflict trauma on practitioners who take on the emotional weight of connecting with human beings that many in society have deemed as less than human. This is exacerbated if practices and norms are not in place within the profession to process the most difficult aspects of the work.
Why study trauma among practitioners?
Working closely and forming relationships with individuals facing the death penalty and, at times, experiencing their execution is a difficult, and often traumatizing experience. Additionally, learning the life stories shared by individuals facing capital punishment – most of whom have experienced serious and sustained abuse during their lives – can cause trauma in practitioners. Trauma in practitioners can manifest as burn-out, desensitization, vicarious traumatization, and secondary traumatization, and often goes unrecognized or ignored.
This needn’t always be the case, however. Implementing trauma informed care practices in the capital defense community can help practitioners understand and process their own experiences.
“I feel guilty talking about my trauma because [it] does not compare with my clients’. I’m not the one on death row.”
In 2021, members of the capital defense movement and advocates on the ground recognized that they did not have a clear way to acknowledge and support colleagues who suffer from trauma because of their work or life experiences. The 8th Amendment Project facilitated a working group composed of mitigation specialists, litigators, and advocates to share ideas. The working group identified that an assessment of current knowledge and the gaps that exist was the best way to move towards a trauma informed movement.
Advancing Real Change, Inc., with help from the 8th Amendment Project, enlisted the Sage Wellness Group, LLC to perform a trauma informed care audit in 2022. Sage Wellness collected information from stakeholders (capital defense staff of all levels, local and national partner organizations, and self-employed stakeholders serving as members of defense teams or community organizers). In 2023, Sage Wellness Group shared its findings and recommendations for how to implement trauma informed care within the capital defense community.
What is trauma-informed care?
Trauma-informed care (TIC) “emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional safety for both providers and survivors, and…creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.”
To adequately address the needs of survivors of trauma, agencies must institute the four R’s of TIC:
- Realize the widespread impact of trauma and understand potential paths for recovery;
- Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system;
- Respond by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and
- Seek to actively resist re-traumatization
The report includes recommendations for organizations and individuals working independently within the capital defense community. These include:
Coaching and training for executives
Specialized coaching for directors and supervisors is key to organizations’ ability to develop TIC practices. With training and coaching, directors and supervisors can better integrate and model trauma-aware responses in daily practices, such as trauma-aware discussions, using a trauma-informed lens within meetings, and supporting staff. This will also help directors and supervisors recognize maladaptive trauma behavior and transform unhealthy narratives that serve only to further alienate colleagues and often leads to burnout.
Training and self-care sessions for team members & self-employed
Implementing training that is specific to the organizations and individuals within the capital defense community will honor the traumas and workload of each organization or self-employed individuals, and should include the development of culturally competent strategies, including a deliberate focus on race-based trauma. Well-designed training will also provide consistent and shared language to help members of the community understand and communicate with each other about trauma with colleagues.
Including trauma informed care in written policies and communications will help organizations develop a clear statement, influenced by its stakeholders, which reflects the historical traumas (including race-based traumas) experienced by staff, the purpose and role of organizations in addressing trauma, the commitment of organizations to TIC work, and accountability measures that will be employed to ensure that trauma-informed practices are implemented (e.g., staff evaluations, review of incentives, board metrics, inclusion of trauma- informed approaches in organizational policies and procedures, etc.).
Peer support opportunities will allow stakeholders to be in conversation with others experiencing similar trauma within the capital defense community, deepen relationships, build on existing strengths, and provide intimate spaces to process, debrief, celebrate, and encourage one another. These opportunities for peer support will create “Ownership Management,” where both organizations and those who are self-employed own the process of becoming trauma-informed and adopting trauma-informed practices.
Read the full report for additional background and the full recommendations.
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