Oct. 22, 2020
An interview with: Taina Gomez, Solano County DPD
Mallika speaks to a deputy public defender about what the last decade of indigent defense work has taught her about the difficulty of walking the “self-care” talk; the cultures that compound trauma both for clients and lawyers of color; and what it means to be committed to social justice causes a first-generation lawyer and child of immigrants, now with two children under two of her own.
Mallika Kaur: What would "trauma-centered" or "trauma-informed" mean to you, in the context of your career as a defense attorney?
Taina Gomez: Being trauma-centered is understanding that there may be much more underneath the surface. It also means taking steps to help my clients cope with stressful court proceedings and decision-making. The legal process itself can be traumatizing to adults, let alone children. Spending time with incarcerated clients, talking with them and their families, is how I have earned clients' trust. This has enabled a juvenile client to share that he and his mom were living in a boarded-up house. Others share surviving neglect, abuse and homelessness. Some have shared they were victims of a sexual assault and had been trafficked. Being trauma-informed is a critical aspect of representation and in certain situations has helped me improve outcomes for my clients.
MK: How do you personally manage the emotional negotiations people imagine defense attorneys deal with very often: when the demands of your job go against your personal beliefs?
TG: Sometimes a case can be challenging to me due to the egregiousness of the victim's injury, or the victim being particularly vulnerable, such as an elderly person or child, or the type of case, such as sexual assault. At the same time, what I have encountered repeatedly is being surprised doing this work. Countless times I have read an egregious set of facts in a police report, reviewed how the case was charged, thought about how terrible the case was, to then sit down with my client and be turned around. I had juvenile clients charged with assault who had themselves been the victims of bullying, or adult clients charged with felonies who were in the midst of a mental health crisis. Not only is it my job to represent my client and advocate on their behalf regardless of the charges, but it's consistent with my own belief that no one should be permanently defined by their worst act or decision and no one is undeserving of redemption.
MK: Could you tell us about any occasion where you felt the full force of vicarious trauma?
TG: As a public defender, the vicarious trauma I have experienced isn't a one-time experience but has occurred day in and day out over the past 10 years. It's the perpetual fight against a relentless system that seeks to take away your client's liberty and dignity, prosecutors who refuse to empathize or negotiate, and judges who reflexively deny your motions and sometimes harshly treat you and your clients.
I have felt the weight of defending all of my clients, but the vicarious trauma I have felt in representing children has been particularly great. Unlike adults, kids don't get to choose where they live, who they live with, or where they attend school, yet the law holds them accountable as if they have grown-up in stable, healthy, safe environments. Watching as my teenage clients navigate the juvenile system, while being detained, separated from their family, and facing severe long-lasting consequences, can be heart-wrenching.
MK: Especially working for years with folks who have generally seen qualitatively much worse circumstances and traumas than the attorneys representing them, how does one not become jaded or fatalistic?
TG: One of the things that I love about doing criminal defense work is that every day is different, every client is different, no case is the same, and unpredictable things happen. I have also learned it's important to remember and cherish the wins in spite of the losses. Wins are not just acquittals and dismissals, but also clients who resolved their cases favorably, avoided more serious consequences, got off probation, overcame their circumstances. But compassion fatigue is real and you have to listen to yourself when you have those feelings.
MK: Almost on the flip side of becoming jaded, how do you also prevent a savior complex: "no one cares about these folks except for me"?
TG: Yes, while I feel responsible for my clients and the outcomes of their cases, I have been doing this long enough to know that I am nobody's savior. It's my responsibility to communicate and collaborate with my clients, to know their case, research, investigate, prepare a defense, advocate on their behalf and counsel them. However, it's important for my client to have agency in their case: this is their life, they are ultimately responsible for certain decisions and the potential consequences of those decisions. I have also learned that you can't do this work in a vacuum and that you often have to call on colleagues for advice, strategy, and research.
MK: Have you seen an increase in awareness about traumas in attorneys over the years? I'm especially curious to understand how attorneys who often talk about traumas of their clients in the courtroom, do or do not investigate their own traumas.
TG: There is a growing awareness that we often internalize a lot of trauma walking our clients through an often-dehumanizing system. Colleagues in my office recently started a Wellness Committee, as there is still a disconnect between knowing and speaking about it and making the necessary changes to improve working conditions. High caseloads, numerous assignments, lack of promotion, recognition and appreciation all compound the trauma and the difficulty of our work.
I have witnessed colleagues of color, leave the profession due to lack of support and opportunities for advancement and know of many women of color who have at various times felt either unsupported or pigeon-holed in their positions. Our profession needs sabbaticals, to allow attorneys an opportunity to recharge. Unfortunately, we do not have sabbaticals in my office, and my maternity leaves have been the longest breaks I have been able to take. We shouldn't feel like the only justification to take time off or have a mental health break is to get sick or pregnant.
MK: In light of COVID, have you developed any new practices towards wellbeing and seen any changes in your practice?
TG: I have been able to spend more time at home with my family. I have a 22-month-old and I am currently home on maternity leave with my seven-week-old. As a family, we have spent more time in our backyard, cooking and taking walks. Before maternity leave, I still appeared in court nearly every day during the pandemic, as I had juvenile clients who were still being arrested and brought to court. Because of the Judicial Council's Emergency COVID Orders and zero bail recommendations, the majority of my adult clients were out of custody and I was able to appear remotely.
As a society, some of the things we learned with COVID include that many of us could be working from home more; many of our clients could be appearing remotely; courts can be more accommodating, many matters previously pushed through weren't so urgent after all; and people that were previously kept in custody pre-trial and post-conviction for misdemeanor and low level felonies, need not have been held.
What is also clear is that working even from home during a pandemic is hard, and it's exacerbated for those with children, particularly women who often bear much of the responsibility for caretaking. My partner and I have tried to develop a tag team approach. Otherwise, how do you make your zoom meeting when your toddler misses their nap?
MK: Lawyers going to therapy or seeking emotional support is quite often still stigmatized, and gendered. What do you suggest for lawyers around seeking help, while building reputation as a zealous and ethical lawyers?
TG: I know from personal experience it's easy to say what one should do, but it is difficult to do. We work in a tough profession, where it's often looked down upon to show weakness. I have worried what will consciously or unconsciously affect how people will perceive my competency as an attorney, particularly as a woman of color. Not only have I at times been bad at self care, but sometimes the institutions we work for don't genuinely allow room for it. Sometimes you need to file that motion to continue or let your supervisor know you have a lot on your plate. You have to push back where you can. Try to find ways to recharge, if you can't take vacation, take a mental health day.
Find colleagues who can come together around collective issues. My colleagues and I recently restarted our internal Public Defender Racial Justice committee which not only seeks to raise issues of race and bias, but also deal with internal issues of lack of promotion, retention and hiring of people of color, all which affect morale.
And while it is great to vent with your PD and lawyer friends, I have found that maintaining my social network outside of PD work has been healthy for me. Also, if you can, find a therapist who understands our work and vicarious trauma. When I have spoken to mental health clinicians, I have found them to be kind and understanding. We are no good to our clients or ourselves if we are emotionally and spiritually depleted.
MK: You've shown staying power in work that is very heavy. At the same time, you've shared that the same weightiness motivates you. Can you say more about what personally recharges you?
TG: What recharges me is the fight for justice. I grew up in Nicaragua and in San Francisco. I have seen the hardships and inequality many people in my community experience. As a little girl, I looked up to civil rights attorneys like the Honorable Thurgood Marshall and I too wanted to make a difference. As a child of immigrants and the first in my family to go onto higher education and obtain a professional degree, what keeps me committed is knowing that great sacrifices were made for me to be able to do this work and that grave injustices continue to exist. I think I was drawn to this work before I even really knew what a public defender was. I remind myself that I get paid to fight the system everyday, advocate on behalf of those most marginalized and ensure their rights are protected. I love the work, my colleagues, my clients. Deep down, I like the fight, and to be a fighter on behalf of the people.