Date of Degree
Criminal Law | Law and Race | Social Work
Forensic Social Work, Criminal Justice, Racism, Worker Stress, Vicarious Trauma, Bearing Witness
Social workers and advocates practice in district attorney (DA) offices as witness or victim aid workers providing intimate partner violence (IPV) survivors counseling, advocacy, resources and information as they enter the criminal legal system (CLS). Their experiences, in particular how stress and vicarious trauma (VT) manifested for them in this unique setting within the criminal legal system, had not yet been examined. This phenomenological study sought to better understand (1) how social workers and advocates in a prosecutor’s office experience practice with intimate partner violence survivors, (2) their experiences of stress, secondary traumatic stress, vicarious trauma, and supports, and (3) the impact of structural racism on witness aid social workers and advocates. Data were collected through in-depth, in-person interviews with 22 social workers and advocates currently and previously employed in two metropolitan area district attorney offices.
Utilizing the constructivist self-development perspective, the study found workers experienced physical, emotional, and psychological symptoms commonly associated with vicarious trauma and secondary traumatic stress (STS). Their worldview shifted, especially about safety and intimacy. They were bearing witness to the narratives of survivors of violence feeling both stressed and rewarded. The organizational setting of the DA office brought frustrations, such as dealing with the challenging criminal legal system, and rewards, such as teamwork with prosecutors. Witnessing institutional racism profoundly affected all workers across racial identities. Racial microaggressions deeply affected workers of color creating additional stressors on the job. In spite of the stressful aspects, workers were passionate and loved their jobs, expertly holding both stressors and rewards. Peer support and supervision were most important for workers.
This study offers several implications for practice. Support for social workers in this legal setting is necessary to minimize VT and STS. Social worker and lawyer collaboration is potentially critical to reducing stress. Active equity based practices will begin to address institutional racism on the job and create more supportive work environments in the criminal legal system. Finally, social work schools could offer forensic courses and IPV specializations as well as anti-racist practice courses.
Implications for research include: Exploration of stress among other professionals in criminal legal settings; Longer term stress impact of working in the criminal legal system needs further examination; Empirical studies on vicarious trauma and secondary traumatic stress need to include racism as a variable of stress on the job, especially for workers of color.
This phenomenological study offered a description of the witness aid worker’s everyday experience of supporting intimate partner survivors in a district attorney office and the impact of organizational stress, listening to trauma narratives, witnessing institutional racism and vicarious trauma. It also outlined mitigators of stress for workers.
Williams, Ovita, "Holding Both: Witness Aid Workers' Experiences Supporting Intimate Partner Violence Survivors in District Attorney Offices" (2020). CUNY Academic Works.