Rachel McKenzie, Managing Attorney
Catherine Connor, Staff Attorney
Sandra Madrigal, Executive Director

For many of us who work with survivors of domestic violence, it is critical to collect detailed information from the client to make a competent decision regarding their case.

We discuss the personal interactions between the couple, including any access to resources the survivor may need. We review custody, visitation and other issues surrounding the children, especially their relationship with the other parent. We examine the presence of power and coercive control in the couple’s relationship (often using the power and control wheel), and we identify whether there is physical abuse, which can include sexual abuse from their partner. Other forms of abuse can include threats of any kind such as stalking, harassment, and the use of weapons.

All of these topics are personal, emotional, and triggering, especially to the teller. As practitioners and advocates, we should always be mindful of our unconscious bias. One should also extend a feeling of compassion to the survivor in order to put them more at ease and build trust. This means we must engage in active listening, conveying confidence, being friendly, and using statements like ‘I hear you saying’ or ‘that makes sense.’ You should also communicate as an empathetic, respectful person who is trauma informed. Validating, being culturally responsive, which includes translation and interpretation in a survivor’s native language if possible, and simply building rapport with this person is the most critical aspect of this work. Trust is essential to empower the survivor to want to tell you about the abuse they have experienced.

Identifying patterns of emotional abuse in the survivor’s experience allows survivors to view their own experiences with empathetic lenses. Survivors often experience self-blame for putting themselves in harm’s way. They often need our confirmation that the abuser made choices and committed actions which caused the survivor to doubt their own experiences. They often will ask themselves, “am I going crazy?” A trauma-informed person can recognize and acknowledge these patterns of emotional abuse, both in the past and in the present. By shedding light to the abuse, the survivor’s experience is validated. As a result, the survivor begins to heal and feel empowered.

Often times, a survivor has no one to speak to for fear of not being believed. This fear creates isolation and shame. Many times, they are not able to express what’s happening to them because of language barriers. When the survivor does speak, perhaps it’s to an unskilled/unprepared ear, like someone who does not know what to do.

However, here at Pro Bono Project, when the survivor realizes we actually want to hear what they have to say, and we want to help fix their horrible situation so they can move on in their life, they breathe a sigh of relief. Even if we only assist in helping them prepare for court, we are still empowering them to face their fears and move forward in life. We want them to be healthier and better for themselves and their children, and compassion is the only way to achieve that.