Sex Abuse Survivors Practice Group Leading Maine Efforts for Trauma-Informed Lawyering
Written by Michael Bigos
On October 18, 2021, new legislation went into effect that removed Maine’s statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse claims. It is a timely change that empowers survivors of sexual trauma to come forward and share their experiences when they are ready, rather than being constrained by an impersonal, sometimes impractical, one-size-fits-all deadline.
The change signals an evolution in lawmakers’ understanding of a reality long known to survivors and their loved ones: Everyone heals at their own pace. What for one survivor may be an experience able to be shared after years of therapy is, for another, something that may take decades—or a lifetime—to be able to share. Some survivors never come forward. The average age of survivors who do come forward is 52, so the rationale for Maine’s law change is clear.
Although Berman & Simmons has long had the honor of helping survivors of sex abuse protect their legal interests and tell their truths, these legislative changes have paved the way for survivors to know they are not alone. We have seen increases in the number of sex abuse inquiries. In addition to empowering survivors, the new statute underscores how pervasive sex abuse trauma is in our communities—transcending socioeconomics, race, gender, religion and geography. We’ve heard from a diverse cross section of Mainers from all backgrounds and find that there is a significant need for attorneys who are equipped and qualified to handle these specialized cases.
And that’s where trauma-informed lawyering comes in.
Working with Trauma-Informed Advocates at HAVEN
We take very seriously our reputation and commitment to achieving excellent outcomes for our clients, and for doing so in a respectful, professional and productive manner that maximizes results. As part of this tradition, our ethical obligations to our clients remain at the forefront of what we do. And, in the world of sex abuse cases, trauma-informed lawyering is an ethical necessity.
As the firm’s Sex Abuse Survivors Practice Group has grown, so too have our efforts to educate, audit and tailor the way we approach the practice of law in these cases. As part of this effort, we partnered with HAVEN—a nonprofit organization based in neighboring New Hampshire whose mission is to prevent sexual assault, domestic violence, human trafficking and stalking and to support survivors of such abuse.
Our firm was fortunate enough to work closely with trauma-informed advocates and leaders such as Sarah Shanahan, Education and Training Director at HAVEN, and Debra Altschiller, HAVEN’s community liaison and a Representative to the New Hampshire Legislature. Together with Shanahan and Altschiller, our Sex Abuse Survivors Practice Group engaged in an audit process and daylong training as part of a series designed to teach and hone trauma-informed approaches.
So, what exactly is trauma-informed lawyering?
Trauma-Informed Lawyering, a Client-Oriented Approach
Trauma-informed lawyering is a conscious approach to the way we think about, talk about and go about practicing law. A client-oriented approach, trauma-informed lawyering teaches practitioners to be mindful of the ways in which those who have experienced trauma interact with the world around them and offers suggestions for approaching interactions in ways that reduce the risk of re-traumatization. Trauma-informed lawyering helps to strengthen client relations, improve communication and build trust.
As an added benefit, the trauma-informed approach helps to minimize the risk that we, as attorneys, assume for experiencing vicarious trauma through working on these difficult cases.
Be Mindful About Privacy, Confidentiality and Language
The following are some common examples for how practitioners can approach representing survivors of sex abuse in a trauma-informed way:
- Be thoughtful about your client’s time and privacy. This may mean giving extra assurances of confidentiality, explaining routine procedures more than once and being cognizant of the fact that ”small annoyances”—such as a client’s being 10 minutes late to a meeting—may, in fact, be the result of a hard-fought victory over tremendous emotional difficulties. It takes a lot of courage to talk about trauma.
- If your client brings documents, files or photos to your meeting, acknowledge this at the outset. Many individuals who have survived trauma will find it easier to focus on the discussion once they know they will have a chance to show you what they have brought. Intake is not the time for bravado.
- When asking your client to talk about his or her trauma, avoid questions like “What is your side of the story?” or “What do you say he did to you?” as these word choices undermine the validity of a client’s personal experience. Instead, use language such as “I know this may be difficult to talk about, but can you tell me what happened?” Be sure to avoid phrasing questions that suggest your client should have done something differently in a traumatic situation (e.g., “Why didn’t you leave?” or “Why didn’t you tell him to stop?”).
- Mirror the client’s language, as the words she chooses are usually the ones she’s most comfortable with using. Avoid using loaded terms such as “victim” that define your client in terms of her trauma (instead, use “survivor”).
- At the conclusion of your conversation, thank your client for entrusting you with the information he has shared and let him know he can contact you if he remembers anything else.
Setting Boundaries During Attorney-Client Communication
While trial attorneys advocate, we are not credentialed mental health professionals, nor should we try to be. A JD simply is not an LCSW, APRN or PsyD. While it is easy for some survivor clients to see their attorneys as de facto mental health counselors, a trauma-informed approach demands a clear boundary in this regard. Though a helpful tool for improving attorney-client communication, a trauma-informed approach is not an outlet for the significant emotional difficulties our clients may be inclined to share.
Concurrent with a trauma-informed approach, attorneys can best assist survivor clients by referral to a trauma-informed mental health professional and/or other providers who are properly equipped and trained to handle the complexities of unpacking emotional trauma caused by sexual abuse.
Trauma-Informed Lawyering: An Ethical Obligation
On the heels of the Maine’s recent changes to the statute of limitations governing claims for childhood sex abuse, there is truly no better time than now to implement a trauma-informed skillset.
Berman & Simmons’ Sex Abuse Survivors Practice Group views trauma-informed lawyering as more than just a ”best practice”—rather, as an ethical obligation to our survivor clients. Following this model, our investments in trauma-informed training are an integral step in the progression toward more empathetic, ethical management of these highly specialized claims. By approaching the practice of law in a trauma-informed way, we offer survivors a compassionate approach, support and the space to authentically tell their truth. And, in so doing, we can facilitate attorney-client communications that help us to represent them in the most effective way possible.