Vicarious trauma (compassion fatigue, secondary PTSD, or countertransference) is a big deal. I think as CASA volunteers we are all too aware of this—we see members of our interdisciplinary teams dealing with its reality every day: department workers overloaded with cases; agency workers, foster parents, friends and family constantly dealing with the storm and stress surrounding the lives of the youth. Injustices, from the simple and mundane to the gruesome and unforgivable, are what our youth deal with from day to day.
I recall a couple of moments that were some of my toughest during my last case. One happened while I was out of town. I received an email stating that my youth had done some actions that had landed her in a psychiatric ward and then potentially in jail. I wasn’t able to contact her directly and wasn’t receiving return calls from her team.
At the time, I had been visiting with family. Unsure of what was going on and how to deal with the aftermath, I completely broke down. I was alone; because of confidentiality law, I wasn’t able to discuss with them the circumstances that caused my sudden deterioration in mood. I was ultimately embarrassed, sad, and feeling helpless, and bothered that I had let circumstances I had no control of impact my ability to enjoy a family vacation, even if it was just for a few hours. Somehow, despite having felt so successful in this case, things seemed to be falling apart, and there was apparently nothing I could do about it, at least for that week.
Another instance happened later; that same teen CASA had assigned me to was talking to me about how hard she was struggling. She couldn’t stop repeating how unfair her foster situation was. She couldn’t drive, couldn’t speak with her family, couldn’t go see her friends when she wanted. She suffered from physical, mental and emotional trauma that had changed the trajectory of her life. I remember the words coming out of my mouth, telling her that she was strong, that she would survive those injustices and become exactly the beautiful young woman she wanted to be.
But as I drove away, I found myself participating in an uncomfortable internal dialogue: you don’t really feel that way, do you? Can you imagine being in her shoes? How angry you would feel? How helpless? Ultimately I had to stop driving and gain some control. It was completely unfair. I am not strong enough to survive those injustices; they would have crushed me.
I let loose some tears and eventually shook it off. Despite my feelings, my youth had no choice; she would survive, because there were no other options.
We are CASA volunteers because we feel these feelings. Because we feel that no youth deserves these injustices, as real as inescapable as they sometimes are; as stupid as we sometimes think they are; as unfair and frightening. That is why so many of us go so far out of our way to please these kids, to bring joy to their lives, far beyond our due diligence writing reports and interviewing. Foster care is almost as unfair as the horrible acts and injustices they faced at home. We understand this; some of us even experienced it firsthand.
These feelings of empathy and of sadness for our youth can be as much a tool as they can be our downfall. If we don’t address, accept, and deal with these feelings, they can crush us; but they are also the reason we are so successful. Our untiring devotion to the idea that these unfairnesses should not continue and should not be experienced by youth are why we do our work. However, above all else, what we have to recognize is that even in situations that seem the most hopeless, we must maintain that our youth have the strength within themselves to meet these challenges and conquer them.
Confidence in our youth will give them feelings of success, meaning and resourcefulness. Telling a youth that they should feel sorry for themselves will get them nowhere; telling a youth that despite what they may have learned through repeated trauma, they are able to be successful, hardworking individuals gives them no excuses to give up.
If you still can’t shake the despair that (rightfully) sets in when you learn of a child’s trauma or even see it first hand, I implore you to reach out to this website, which has a dearth of resources for individuals and caregivers experiencing all different types of trauma possible, as well as a thorough academic perspective regarding why we have these feelings of countertransference and secondary trauma and how to overcome them. Gifts From Within – Dealing with PTSD
Ultimately, the goal is to keep on the “good” side of the helping spectrum, able to help where others who are experiencing secondary trauma and burnout related to this very difficult may be falling behind. That’s why we only get one family to work with, and are members of the public instead of professionals, and why our input and our involvement is so valuable.
If you have any questions, comments, ideas for future posts or resources for CASA youth or volunteers for Jesse, please email her at [email protected]