Christine Zielinski is a CFR Litigation Supervisor at CFR, where she is responsible for helping to mentor and train staff members and further developing CFR’s legal practice.
As a CFR attorney since 2007, I know how stress levels can ebb and flow when representing parents in Family Court. There are times it seems the judge grants your every request or when a child returning home hugs you and says, “Thank you for my mommy.”
There are also times when your client relapses and her child is removed. Or psychiatric records have arrived late to the courthouse and you must spend the weekend reading instead of relaxing. Or a client describes her physical abuse to you in such great detail that it brings tears to your eyes—and you worry that despite her painful history and your best efforts, she may still end up with a finding of neglect.
During these times, it can be tempting to simply give up. Then you remind yourself that you chose this field for a reason—to make a difference. And you remember that you have a responsibility to serve your clients to the best of your abilities and to help them make their children’s live better. So you dismiss your thoughts of giving up and go back to your work. As CFR grows, however, we have many new staff members who will face these same thoughts—and I want to make sure that they are supported.
Last year, I noticed that many staff members were under enormous amounts of stress and saw people crying at work with more frequency. This was true of the attorneys, the social workers, everyone. One attorney cried because a client had passed away. Another cried because a newborn had been placed in foster care and she thought she could have done more to prevent it. Yet another cried because she simply did not have enough time to write up her notes and felt overwhelmed. These are not dramatic people—they are strong, intelligent, committed professionals who strive to achieve the highest standards in their fields. Nobody wants to do a bad job or complain, but sometimes it seems like we cannot do enough to help our clients and that the system will never change, at least not quickly enough.
Around this time, a friend lent me a book entitled, Trauma Stewardship: an Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky. The author had worked with survivors of sexual assault and realized that her work took a toll on her in a variety of ways. She did extensive research on “secondary trauma” and offers ways to manage the emotional difficulty of working with people in pain. The author suggests developing a daily practice of reflection, to remind ourselves why we chose a particular career, and to have gratitude that we are in a position to use our talents to make the world a better place. She also reminds us that we have an ethical obligation to take care of ourselves so that we can work effectively.
After I brought up the book at a staff meeting, CFR leadership decided we should address the emotional toll of our work with the entire staff and organized a training dedicated to “self care.” We discussed the things we found most difficult about our work and how people cope with these challenges, as well as what else CFR can do to support the staff. Using the term “resiliency building,” CFR has now integrated the notion of self care into the initial training for all incoming staff members and has arranged for a psychologist to host regular resiliency building support groups in both CFR offices.
For more than 10 years, CFR has worked tirelessly to reunite parents with their children, often after intense struggles. Because of the difficult nature of this work, we have learned that it is equally important to support our staff in caring for themselves. Moving forward, I know that resiliency building will help us retain our excellent staff and achieve the best possible results for our families.