Judges and Compassion Fatigue

Family court judges face highly emotional cases where difficult material is the stock in trade. They are expected to be neutral in the face of tragedy, perform duties impartially and without emotion and serve as the balance point and decision maker. They are expected to remain unaffected by disturbing information they see and hear and keep their own counsel because of the isolation of the bench. Over time, however, complex and emotionally charged cases and weighty decisions can infiltrate the body, mind and soul of the man or woman who wears the black robe of a judge and take a toll. The toll manifests itself as compassion fatigue and burnout.

In family law, judges face the ugly parts of the human condition. Theirs is a diet of graphic medical evidence, 911 tapes, photos and videos of injuries, victim impact statements, testimony at trial and sentencing, and statements of surviving family members.

Compassion fatigue is milepost on the journey that often begins with compassion satisfaction, which happens when someone feels good about what he or she does because the work has purpose and meaning, and it helps people. Over time, however, compassion satisfaction transmutes into compassion fatigue, which is the cumulative impact of continual exposure to traumatic or distressing stories and events when working in a helping capacity for a long period of time. Compassion fatigue relates to the nature, intensity and quantity of the subject matter handled as part of their job. Compassion fatigue comes from “working with the big uglies in life,” as one observer puts it. Common signs of compassion fatigue include intrusive thoughts, anger or fear, disturbed sleep, fatigue, loss of appetite, loss of empathy, loss of faith in humanity, a sense of isolation from others and physical complaints. Without intervention, compassion fatigue becomes burnout.

Judges facing burnout often feel drained, as if they have nothing left to give and feel a lack of achievement, purpose and sense of hope. Some experience distrust with a sense of impending failure. Burnout is a disillusioning experience. Doing even the minimum becomes a challenge. Unrelieved, burnout may harden into a fixed element of one’s outlook and depersonalization of cases one must deal with. When burnout is advanced, the judge’s usual demeanor hardens in detachment.

According to Anne Chambers, director of Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program, judges and family law professionals, as well as those in criminal and juvenile law, run a higher risk of compassion fatigue. Personality factors that increase susceptibility include a high need for control, over-dedication, perfectionism, and workaholic tendencies. Others at greater risk are idealists and those with unrealistic expectations or low coping abilities. Very empathic people who pour high levels of emotional energy into their work can become overwhelmed over time.

According to one survey of 500 judges attending various domestic violence conferences across the country regarding the effect their court calendars had on them, 105 judges (63 percent – 54 percent of whom were male and 46 percent female) reported one or more symptoms identified as work-related compassion fatigue.

Judges with seven or more years of experience reported higher levels of externalized symptoms such as anger or hostility. Interestingly, female judges reported a greater incidence of compassion fatigue including internalized symptoms (73 percent female judges versus 54 percent male judges). Seventy three percent of the judges reported one or more coping or prevention mechanisms focusing on personal, professional, and social strategies. The judges who participated averaged 51 years of age and averaged 10 years of judicial experience. Eighty one percent of the responders heard some criminal cases, with 54 percent hearing domestic relations and civil court work, and 30 percent hearing some juvenile court matters as well, totaling over 100 percent due to varied or mixed calendars.

Judicial compassion fatigue and burnout result from vicariously becoming worn down and emotionally weary from hearing about and dealing with the tragedy of the human condition – cases where people have been physically and emotionally injured, hospitalized, and sometimes killed, where litigants suffer ‘on our watch,’ so to speak and infiltrate life, and that is only natural if the judge cares about and is engaged in his or her work.

One study suggests that judges follow the ABCs of compassion fatigue prevention and avoidance, which are Awareness, Balance, and Connection. Awareness is the most critical factor because judges, who work long hours, may have no time for normal pursuits. Often, poor physical health and a problematic family life accompany overwork. In short, establishing both personal and occupational work boundaries make for a balance and connection that are equally important. Judges find strength in their communities, their cultures, their faith, their colleagues, and their families. A healthy sense of humor also seems helpful.

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