Lessons from the Courthouse

As a domestic violence advocate, one of my job responsibilities is providing court support—basically: accompanying clients to legal proceedings. Mostly, this means just sitting there.

I feel painfully inept at this pretty much always—mostly because it doesn’t really seem that the usefulness of the task I’m doing matches the gravitas of the situation we’re in. Stakes are high, and my client is usually freaked out. Often, she is facing her abuser for the first time in months, retelling her story at a restraining order hearing, or fighting for her children. And here I am, offering “emotional support,” which to be honest, feels a little flimsy given the present state of affairs. Every time, I remind clients of my role—that I cannot offer legal advice, address the court, or speak on their behalf—and even though they have asked me to be present, I always sort of expect them to turn to me halfway through the whole thing and ask, “so… why are you here again?”

I try to be helpful and stay focused on the mission at hand, but inevitably, an array of distractions threatens to throw me off my game: the anxiety and anger churning through the halls of the courthouse, my own self-consciousness around my obvious uselessness (which I am sure must be apparent to everyone), and streams of unhappy people coming and going. I watch the system attempt to arbitrate justice, often not well. I see the debris violence left behind. I feel wisps of residual trauma wafting down the hallway. I curse my incompetence.

At court, I do a lot of pretending. It’s the only way really. I pretend I’m a bodyguard, a physical barrage of stalwart strength standing between my client and the person who hurt them. I try to obstruct and deflect the beams of their energetic presence coming our way. I stand up straight, puff out my chest, and scowl a little, trying to convince others (and myself) that I am a fierce and formidable opponent you wouldn’t want to cross. I pretend I’m scary and intimidating to anyone who would even think about messing with my client. I measure angles and guard our territory, always aware of what’s happening in my zone of responsibility.

I also pretend my occasional utterances are comforting, reassuring, or at least, appropriate and helpfully distracting. (How are you feeling? You’re doing really well. Did that make sense? Do you have any questions? How ’bout those Packers?)

Sometimes, things run smoothly. Cases are called in a timely fashion, and all parties are punctual. My client and I take care of other business in the brief downtime we do have—safety planning, coordinating services, plotting our take-down of the patriarchy, etc.). Occasionally, I’ll even have some legally relevant insight or moderately helpful explanation to share.

And sometimes it’s a giant mess. This is what happened the last time. An attorney was late. And when he finally arrived, the other attorney whisked him away to a secret lawyer meeting to negotiate or fistfight or something. And when they finally came back, they decided they needed another hour-long secret lawyer meeting, only with the judge this time. Meanwhile, my client and I waited, sitting together on an aggressively uncomfortable, puritan-style wooden bench, doing our best to pass the time and ignore the unpleasant fact that the person who beat her up several times was sitting just a few feet away.

It sucked. There are moments in my job when I really feel like I’m helping. And then there are moments like these, when I wonder what the hell I’m even doing in the room.

But we made it through. The hearing (when it finally happened three hours later) went relatively well. As we parted ways, she smiled and said, “thank you for being here.” I stood there alone for a moment, the vibration of her words humming in the empty space of her departure.

Being. Not doing.

I guess sometimes nothing is not nothing. Now that I think about it, it’s a lesson my work teaches me again and again. Sometimes presence, the simple act of occupying an uncertain space with a frightened person, is enough.

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One Comment on “Lessons from the Courthouse

  1. This is beautiful, Rachel. Thank you for being a compassionate witness to yourself and others. The world needs us to keep showing up. xo

    Like

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