As attorneys, we are particularly prone to compassion fatigue, also known as secondary trauma. I was first introduced to this term during my time at the DC Children’s Law Center, where I represented kids in the abuse and neglect system, as well as caretakers pursuing adoption, guardianship or custody. One hundred percent of my clients were black, indigent and at that time part of a broken foster care system. Some of the cases didn’t seem so serious—like the cases where young kids were left home alone so mom could work or the cases where children received accidental minor burns because an oven was left on and open to provide heat in the home. There were also severe situations beyond any contention of acceptability. Cases such as when my 16-year-old client disclosed decades of sexual terror by her stepfather at a Howard University summer camp; or a case where a 12-year-old hurricane Katrina survivor made it to DC after being stuck in an attic filled with water for three full days. After three years in the trenches, I became a supervising attorney at the DC Children’s Law Center, where I got to assist my lawyers in helping their clients.
By the time I left the Children’s Law Center in 2010, I was experiencing night terrors and parasomnia. The nightmares and grim secondary trauma subsided, after I started a family law practice with an old friend from law school. I loved my DC divorce/custody and family formation practice, where I was able to separate myself from work in a way that I was unable to at the Children’s Law Center. Later, my now ex-husband and I decided to move home to Denver to be near my family and ill father and try to slow life down a bit. Eventually, my son turned two and it was time for me to restart my professional career. I started a much different type of practice than the one I had in DC, decided to be a solo practitioner with a paralegal team and did not think at all about secondary trauma until October 26, 2019.
On October 26, 2019, one of my favorite clients died by suicide while in the middle of divorce proceedings. She had struggled with depression and anxiety from time to time, as well as battled alcohol addiction. But her death came as a complete surprise. She appeared to have overcome many of her demons, lighting up my office with each visit. I have never laughed so hard with a client as I did with her. It was a long marriage, the kids were grown, and the divorce was incredibly hard on her, but I never thought she would take her own life. But, she did.
This is not an article about suicide prevention or the emotions one goes through when someone close to you dies of suicide. Nor is it about the warning signs I should have picked up on, or if I had, whether I could have made a difference. But it is about secondary trauma, which can be resolved with the right interventions. It is not linear, certainly not easy, for many layers of trauma may be involved. While most of us carry primary trauma with us in some capacity, the legal profession and direct services in particular can prompt secondary trauma.
When I learned of my client’s death on October 26, I felt like the wind had gotten knocked out of me. In fact, my entire firm went through an interesting type of mourning with which I am still grappling. I know that if I am not careful, my mourning for my client can turn into a type of shame show. I also know that if I don’t carefully track how my client’s suicide triggered pain in myself and others, the “secondary” nature of this particular trauma can be erased and become primary trauma for me. Frankly, it is scary writing this article, with my heart racing as I write these final words. However, I know the very reason this column exists is to initiate these types of conversations, and as Brene Brown has taught me, I choose vulnerability with the hope of being courageous.
Sara Scott is a Denver native and recently moved home from Washington, D.C., where she was a founding partner of Zamani & Scott LLP, which provided full-service representation to individuals in the areas of adoption, assisted reproductive technology, and custody/divorce matters. As a trained mediator and collaborative divorce practitioner, she works to diffuse rather than inflame conflict, helping families reach a resolution in the least contentious way. Sara received her Juris Doctor from The George Washington University Law School, and her Bachelor of Arts degree from Stanford University, where she was awarded Stanford’s Community Building Award.