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How Trauma-Informed Lawyering Skills Can Empower Survivors

The legal process should be empowering for all those who engage in it, especially for survivors of sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. Survivors engage in the legal process uniquely, though, due to the trauma they experienced during their victimization.

The impacts of trauma are threaded throughout the lives of trafficked and exploited individuals. For example, research shows that the majority of commercially sexually exploited persons suffered past abuse, violence, and neglect in their early years. Survivors of trafficking often experience life-long psychological impacts from the repeated trauma of their victimization, resulting in extensive impacts on the brain both in the short and long term. This type of complex trauma impedes the empowering result the legal process can provide. To ensure that the legal process is empowering for survivors, attorneys must be trauma-informed.


Trauma is the unique individual experience of an event or enduring condition as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning. The definition of trauma is purposefully broad to be applicable to a singular traumatic event, such as natural disasters, as well as chronic traumatic events, like human trafficking. Additionally, the definition intentionally highlights the individual’s perception, as it is up to each individual survivor to determine whether a particular event is traumatic.

There are two key components of a traumatic experience: the objective and the subjective. It is the subjective experience of the objective event(s) that constitutes the trauma. The more an individual believes they are endangered, the more traumatized they are. Thus, two individuals may undergo the same experience and only one may be traumatized while the other may not be.


The effects of trauma are also unique to the survivor. Traumatic effects can occur immediately or be delayed, and duration can vary from short-term to life-long. Trauma can manifest as hyperarousal or hypo-arousal. Hyperarousal includes hyperactivity, panic, rage, hypervigilance, and elation/mania. Hypo-arousal includes depression, disconnection, deadness, or exhaustion. Additionally, some survivors may form maladaptive behaviors to cope and shield themselves from the trauma they experienced and may, at times, re-experience. Some of those maladaptive behaviors include disassociation, numbing, and hypervigilance.

Trauma alters reality. Trauma changes the brain, how one sees the world, how a survivor perceives danger, how the body reacts to one’s environment, and what the individual considers relevant and irrelevant to their survival. When an individual experiences repeated or prolonged traumatic experiences, the pain and other negative experiences simply begin to feel “normal.” And, understandably, the survivor resists changing what has come to feel “normal” to them.

Trauma alters memory. Survivors may not remember details about their victimization or they may be unable to recall events chronologically. This is because, in times of danger, all bodily systems not crucial to survival are switched off, including the hippocampus or “thinking brain,” which is the region of the brain primarily associated with memory. When switched off, the hippocampus stops filing memories chronologically. Instead, the body encodes memories via the senses. This results in difficulty recalling traumatic events in an organized, linear, and easily articulable way. Thus, survivors more often recall their reactions to the traumatic event—images, sensations, fear, and emotions.

When we see "symptoms" in a trauma survivor, it is always significant to ask ourselves: what purpose does this behavior serve? Every symptom helped a survivor cope at some point in the past and is still helpful in the present – in some way.


Trauma-informed lawyering places the realities of the client’s trauma at the forefront of how the attorney engages with the client and requires the attorney to adjust their typical practice approach so it is informed by the client’s specific trauma experiences and individual reactions to those experiences.

A trauma-informed care approach is built on five core values:

  • Safety, both physical and emotional;

  • Trustworthiness, which relates to the clarity of expectations, providing consistent service delivery, and maintaining boundaries;

  • Choice;

  • Collaboration; and

  • Empowerment.

The most important value of those five is safety. It is important to ensure that a client is safe; not just physically but emotionally as well. If the client isn’t safe, the attorney should assist the client in establishing safety before proceeding.

Being trauma-informed requires service providers to reconsider the way they support survivors, including the language they use and even the physical environment they create. A trauma-informed approach results in more trusting relationships-which lead to better results.


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