Working with Survivors of Trauma

Intake calls are similar to the client meetings that we learn in Legal Practice. The class teaches us the basics- trying to ask the right questions and how to explain the logistics of payment and making appointments. I'm thankful for the practice before this internship, but working with immigrant survivors of trauma adds new layers of complexity.

"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, it goes to his heart." - Nelson Mandela

First, the client may not be speaking her first language. I conduct a lot of intake calls in Spanish, but others may speak to me in English, but prefer Persian, Arabic, or French. I have found that speaking to clients about their experiences in Spanish is one of the most powerful moments. They feel more comfortable because they can speak openly about their experiences and know that someone understands. Some of our clients have been told that no one will help them because they don't speak English. Breaking down the language barrier is the first step to building a relationship with the client, and helping them through a conversation that is extremely difficult.

Second, there may be other aspects of life that influenced their choices during their abuse. For example, divorce may have been a legal option, but it was not consistent with their religious beliefs, and she didn't want to betray her religious convictions. Because of a language barrier, she may not have known that there was immigration help available to her, or that she could win custody of her children in court. In addition, the abuse may not even be her partner, but instead a mother-in-law or father-in-law, who have expectations that their daughter in law will serve them. There are many similarities across instances of abuse and violence, but each case is individual and inherently personal. It's not right to assume that circumstances were similar in two cases just because the facts are similar. My job in the intake is to find similarities that can help in case law, but to get the client's full story and perspective.

Finally, and most importantly, the subject matter is extremely personal and extremely difficult to discuss. Domestic violence and abusive relationships are extremely complicated. She had feelings for this person, and possibly has children with him. She saw something in him at one point, but now he has made her life horrible. Unpacking all of this requires time, and cannot be achieved in one phone call. However, in the intake call, we always begin with very general questions. There are specifics that we need to cover, but starting generally allows survivors to have control over the direction of the conversation, and to stop when they feel uncomfortable. In addition, understanding the different types of abuse- physical, emotional/verbal, financial, and sexual- is important when discussing a client's story. Legal help is available not only for those who have suffered physical abuse, but also for all different kinds of abuse. It is important to discuss with the survivor all different aspects of her relationship to identify other kinds of abuse in addition to physical or sexual.

Intake calls are the first step in the process of possibly taking on a case, making this a very important role. This isn't always easy to do, but it is absolutely worth it. All of our victories once began as intake calls. I hope for all of our clients that the entire process is one of healing, and is the beginning of starting a better life.