Working with Clients Who Have Experienced Family Violence: Being client-centered and trauma-informed.

AuthorPahl, Sheila

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...

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