A child-centered approach requires building trust with a child victim of sexual abuse who has experienced betrayal from a trusted institution, which is a delicate and complex process. The lawyer’s role in establishing a solid and supportive attorney-client relationship is crucial for the child’s well-being and the success of legal proceedings. Here are some essential strategies to build trust in such sensitive cases:
Empathy and Compassion:
Demonstrate genuine empathy and compassion toward the child. Acknowledge the pain and trauma they have experienced without judgment. Show a sincere commitment to understanding their feelings and concerns. Do not over-emphasize your understanding of their experience. No one victim experiences things in the same way. You could never truly understand how they feel or what they experienced. Letting them know you understand that can help establish trust with a child.
Establishing a Safe Environment:
Create a safe and private space for communication where the child feels comfortable expressing themselves. Assure them of confidentiality and explain the legal parameters around privacy, building trust through transparency. Have a victim advocate or support person present when meeting with the child if that helps them feel more comfortable. Child Advocacy Centers are great places to meet with children as they are already child-friendly and help ease children’s anxieties.
Prioritize the child’s well-being and needs above all else. Demonstrate that their best interests are the primary focus of your representation. Tailor communication and legal strategies to suit the child’s age, maturity, and level of understanding. Listen to what they need and want. Speak to the child, not the caretaker or guardian, when communicating. Never talk about the child like they are not in the room, i.e., explaining something to a caretaker or guardian while referring to the child instead of speaking directly with the child.
Building Rapport Gradually:
Recognize that trust is earned over time. Before delving into the case details, discuss non-legal topics to establish rapport. Ask what interests the child has, what they enjoy, etc. It is often best to engage the child in another way when asking specifics about the abuse, such as coloring together, playing with toys, and taking them outside to throw the ball or play basketball. When a child’s brain is engaged in an activity, it will make it a bit easier for them to open up about hard things. Allow the child to set the pace for disclosure, ensuring they feel in control of the process.
Trauma-Informed Legal Representation:
Educate yourself on trauma-informed legal representation to understand the potential triggers and challenges the child may face. Seek out specific training on trauma and the brain, trauma triggers, and long-term impacts of trauma. Work collaboratively with mental health professionals to provide comprehensive support.
Be culturally sensitive and aware of the child’s background. Understand that cultural factors may influence their perceptions of authority figures and legal processes. Do not generalize assumptions based on that child’s religion, ethnicity, or race. Ask sensitive questions.
Use clear and straightforward language, avoiding legal jargon that may confuse or intimidate the child. Regularly check in on their understanding and feelings about the legal proceedings. Some children need visuals to comprehend concepts, so they use drawings of the process, courtroom, police station, etc. Predict and prepare every step of the process for the child so they understand what to expect and are not surprised by things that may occur in the courtroom or during the process.
Involving Supportive Figures:
Encourage the involvement of trusted individuals in the child’s life, such as family members, friends, or victim advocates, as appropriate. Collaborate with child advocacy organizations to provide additional resources and support. Let the child know they have a team working with them.
Be consistent in your actions and communication. Reliability and predictability can contribute to the child’s sense of security and trust. Keep the child informed about the legal process, potential outcomes, and any changes in strategy. Even small details are essential for the child to feel confident.
Advocating for the Child’s Wishes:
Ensure that the child’s preferences and wishes are heard and respected within the legal process. Advocate for the child’s rights while involving them in decision-making to the extent possible. This can be challenging when caregivers or guardians have different goals and desired outcomes. Make it clear that you represent the child in this process and that their voice matters. If the child has unrealistic expectations, talk with them in an age-appropriate way about their expectation to help them understand. Never ask the child to leave the room so you can speak to a caregiver or parent alone. This will put a child on guard and reduce any trust you have built.
Building trust with a child victim of sexual abuse requires patience, sensitivity, and a child-centered approach. By prioritizing the child’s well-being and demonstrating unwavering support, a lawyer can play a pivotal role in helping the child navigate the legal process with a sense of security and trust.