Calgary Legal Guidance’s Domestic Violence Family Law program is constantly learning and growing to better hear, understand and serve its clients.
Calgary Legal Guidance (CLG) is a non-profit organization offering a range of legal services to those who cannot easily access Legal Aid or other paid legal services. The Domestic Violence Family Law program (DVFL) is one of many programs and services offered by CLG. Like our other programs, the DVFL is in a constant process of learning and growing. We are always pushing forward to fill gaps in the legal system in the most client-centered, trauma-informed, efficient, and effective ways possible.
The Need to be Heard and Understood
Everyone entering the legal system needs to be heard and understood by a responsive system. And therein lies the central challenge. Do we hear and understand people engaged in the legal system? What about a person who has experienced family violence and their need to address many challenges, both legal and non-legal?
Law students all learn the same formula for approaching legal matters: gather the facts, identify the issues, identify the law, apply the law, and form a conclusion. In practice, especially in the murky waters of family law, the speedy lawyer may entirely skip the part where we find out what the client wants to accomplish, what their reality is, their lived experience, their needs, their fears, and their strengths. We cut people off when they talk about their emotions or conflicts or relationship issues, and say things like “stick to the facts, please”. Then we skip right to the part where sentences begin with “you should”, “you’ll have to”, and “this is what I’ll do for you”. The danger in this process is when we become overconfident in our assessment of someone else’s life and needs, or ignore the day-to-day reality of the family, and push them into predetermined outcomes. In other words, we are not listening, and we are not going to create good outcomes.
The good news is that adopting a client-centered and trauma-informed approach is a great place to start. But what does it mean, and why does it matter?
“Client-centered” means different things in different settings. The term originates in the field of psychotherapy, with a man named Carl Rogers, who said:
In my early professional years I was asking the question: How can I treat, or cure, or change this person? Now I would phrase the question in this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?
Being client-centered means approaching a client with a sincere belief in their strength and capacity, and recognizing their agency without judgment. With very few exceptions, everyone has capacity upon which we can build, and everyone can make decisions for themselves that we can positively support. Doing so can massively shift power and energize self-advocacy.
Being trauma-informed is not the same as being nice. Yes, is important to have an excellent set of people skills, and to know what to say or not say in response to various things our clients might tell us. It is important to be kind to a person who is distraught, or who has had painful experiences. Being trauma-informed IS understanding the neurobiology of trauma and being responsive to the many ways that trauma shows up in our clients. It also means recognizing someone’s lived experience (which may include childhood or generational trauma) and being responsive to that.
How We Work
The DVFL is an interdisciplinary, collaborative program that uses a holistic approach to support people accessing our services. The reality of the survivor or victim of violence and abuse is far more complex than a narrow set of legal issues. Clients most often need support with safety, housing, immediate financial aid, as well as quality, thoughtful and direct referrals to services such as counselling. To that end, the program employs two full-time lawyers, one full-time registered social worker/advocate, and another full-time program coordinator who is also a registered social worker. The team works collectively and on an equal footing with one another, deferring to and relying on one another’s expertise and insight.
Some best practices and things we do include:
- A wheel of service with a human at the center: Our program coordinator is the hub of everything. Having a social worker/program coordinator at the center of communication means the client is not responsible for putting all the pieces together themselves (which leads to referral fatigue). Clients can rely on a human with a phone number and a name they know who can connect them to program lawyers, the program advocate, other programs and services in CLG, and external programs and services ranging from emergency shelters to the Family Court Counsellors. Our program coordinator can also immediately support someone in distress, including suicide screening.
- Debriefing: While the ability to share a difficult client story or situation with a colleague is extremely beneficial to our well-being, debriefing is primarily an opportunity to learn. Having a non-lawyer colleague, especially someone like a social worker or health professional, to talk to (observing any confidentiality or privilege that applies in your situation) is an excellent way for us to grow as professionals. We can find new, different, more impactful and often more practical ways to support our clients.
- Free-flowing communication: The team works TOGETHER. We see clients as team clients, rather than belonging to one team member. We actively work together to problem solve, discuss and debrief on client matters as necessary. This enables us to flexibly support our clients’ needs and to support each other.
CPLEA’s Domestic Violence and the Law series of print resources and WillowNet.ca are excellent resources for the basics on the law and how it applies.
Below are a few other resources that have helped me personally but are not commonly discussed or listed elsewhere:
- SAFeR: SAFeR is a four-step method to create safe, workable outcomes for parents and their children who are subjected to family violence. It was created by the Battered Women’s Justice Project and is a particularly useful tool for lawyers.
- Family Violence and Family Law webinar series at Western University (free)
- CCAW: For those lawyers and professionals who have the resources, I encourage you to spend your conference budget on the Conference on Crimes Against Women (annually in Dallas, Texas) even just once. It has been extremely eye-opening for me.
- The Trauma-Informed Lawyer Podcast: Hosted by Myrna McCallum, the podcast is for lawyers as well as anyone who works with people generally.
Towards Creating a Responsive System
The challenges faced by those subjected to family violence when entering the legal system are rooted firstly in abuse and its effects: safety concerns for self and children, fear, lack of confidence, self-doubt, power imbalances, the effects of trauma on the brain and body, etc. These are further complicated by entering a legal system that lacks understanding about family violence and its effects, and the reality that it exists and is widespread.
The challenge remains to create a system that is not only educated, but responsive. We still have a ways to go, but the concepts and practices of being client-centered and trauma-informed, especially grounded in family violence education, are an excellent place to start.
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The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.
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