Vicarious Trauma and Burnout for Prosecutors and Investigators

I have been a prosecutor for almost eleven years now and I wish I could say that the job gets easier. For at least eight of those years, I have served as the child sexual assault legal advisor for my office. This role requires me not only to serve as a liaison with various agencies, including our district’s multi-disciplinary team, it also requires me to provide subject-matter expertise to other prosecutors in the preparation of their cases. This, in turn, requires me to attend various trainings and conferences to stay abreast on best practices and evidence-based research on a host of topics. Additionally, in handling internet crimes against children, I am often required to review images or videos of child sexual exploitation. In my role as a member of the multi-disciplinary team and as a prosecutor who has the final say in whether criminal charges will be pursued against a particular individual, I have often been called upon to referee disputes between law enforcement and child protective services or forensic interviewers. This is, of course, added stress on top of an already stress-filled job. I remember a conversation that I had with a forensic interviewer a few years back. I commented to her that I thought she had a tough job having to listen to kids recount the worst times of their lives every day. She replied that it was nothing compared what my job entailed. She noticed that I was puzzled by her response, so she explained. Her job requires her to listen to these children’s stories; mine requires me to do something about them and live with the consequences.

In recent years there has been a greater push among prosecutors, and lawyers in general, to educate about the dangers of vicarious or secondary trauma and burnout (Russell, 2010). Vicarious trauma has been referred to by several names, so it is important to understand the various nuances to these terms. Many are familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder as defined by the DSM-IV and later the DSM-5. However, research has also begun to focus on secondary traumatic stress, which is “the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another” with symptoms that “mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder” and may be “caused by at least one indirect exposure to traumatic material” (NCTSN, 2011, p. 2). Figley (1995) coined the phrase “compassion fatigue” to describe secondary traumatic stress. An individual affected by secondary traumatic stress “may find themselves re-experiencing personal trauma or notice an increase in arousal and avoidance reactions related to the indirect trauma exposure” and “may also experience changes in memory and perception; alterations in their sense of self-efficacy; a depletion of personal resources; and disruption in their perceptions of safety, trust, and independence” (NCTSN, 2011, p. 2). Vicarious trauma, though similar to secondary traumatic stress, “refers to changes in the inner experience of the [professional] resulting from empathetic engagement with a traumatized client” (NCTSN, 2011, p. 2). It is more a “theoretical term that focuses less on trauma symptoms and more on the covert cognitive changes that occur following cumulative exposure to another person’s traumatic material” (NCTSN, 2011, p. 2). Burnout, on the other hand, refers to “the psychological toll on a professional who works with challenging populations, specifically victims of trauma and abuse, which can include prolonged depression and/or anxiety, drug use, decreased desire to efficiently perform job responsibilities, diminished social activities, a desire to leave the job, or examining the meaning of life” (Hunt, 2018, p. 2). Figley (1995) cautions that burnout “emerges gradually and is a result of emotional exhaustion,” while secondary trauma or compassion fatigue “can emerge suddenly with little warning” (p. 12).

Here, I primarily want to give some practical advice for prosecutors and investigators on ways to deal with and guard against vicarious trauma and burnout. First, prosecutors and investigators should know their limits and surround themselves with a good social support team within their office that can help them spot the symptoms of secondary traumatic stress and the warning signs of vicarious trauma and burnout. This is not a lone-wolf industry, particularly when one is dealing with victims who have suffered traumatic experiences such as rape or sexual abuse. For instance, my colleagues on the internet crimes against children (ICAC) task force, who are required to review images and videos of child sexual exploitation and torture on a regular basis, are required to undergo periodic counseling sessions as a matter of policy. They also look out for one another. If you cannot trust the people you are working with to help each other with this issue, then it is time to find a new focus area. When I handled one of my first child pornography cases, I remember the investigator telling me to make sure I turned the sound off when viewing the videos. Sound is such a powerful memory trigger and it is one that does not go away quickly. For instance, my office handled a case where a husband in a drug-induced psychosis attacked his pregnant wife and attempted to cut their unborn child out of her because he believed it to be a demon. He knew something was wrong because he had called 9-1-1 prior to the attack, telling the dispatcher what he had ingested and that he was afraid that he was going to do something bad. When first responders did not arrive quickly enough for him, he proceeded to attack his wife, with the dispatcher listening the whole time. The first officer to arrive on scene overheard him asking his wife how she was still alive. After listening just to the 9-1-1 recording, I found myself unable to sleep that night. I could still hear the woman’s screams. All of the first responders in that case were required to submit to counseling.

Second, I often hear law enforcement, and some prosecutors, speak in terms of fighting against evil as if they are on a crusade. While I certainly do see my job as a calling, of sorts, it is important to not let your life or your job be defined by what you are fighting against. Instead, let it be defined by what you are fighting for. If it is defined by what you are fighting against, then you will see enemies almost everywhere. And every loss, every set-back, every struggle will eat away at you emotionally, mentally, even spiritually. If it is defined by what you are fighting for, on the other hand, then you will find much more to encourage you, to brighten your day, to make it all seem worthy. A little over a year into my tenure as a prosecutor, I was assigned a case in which both parents had been sexually abusing their four teenaged children. By the time the case came to light, the oldest had graduated high school, but the other three still had a year or two left. My team and I worked tirelessly for these kids. The youngest three were placed into foster care, which ended up being a traumatic process for them in the beginning. They were assigned to a foster family that turned out to be just as manipulative and emotionally abusive as their parents. So, we worked to get them placed elsewhere. Eventually, the parents pleaded guilty to their charges and the kids were placed in a much better environment. I can remember the day when these siblings started arguing over typical teenage sibling drama that had nothing to do with the trauma they had experienced. That, in itself, seemed like a small victory. Their foster care worker and I have stayed in touch with these kids over the years. We have watched them graduate from high school and then college. The oldest, who was too old to be placed into foster care, put herself through college, then nursing school. The youngest daughter now works with child protective services and advocates for improving conditions for other kids in foster care. I had the privilege of officiating her wedding in February. These are the moments we should be fighting for. Focusing on what we are fighting for is important in another respect: it reminds us not to lose the child just to win the case. While some prosecutors may disagree with me, I will not force a traumatized child to do what he or she is not ready to do, including testifying at trial. I will work with the child’s therapist to get them ready for court, but in the end, if the child is not ready or is not in a place emotionally or psychologically to endure the stress of trial, I will not force them to do so. I will try work out an acceptable plea agreement as best I can, but I will not re-victimize or re-traumatize a child for the sake of winning a case.

Lastly, learn to focus on the good in this world, not just the bad. If all we focus on is the negativity and stress that surround us, it will leave us depleted in the end. Learn to find healthy outlets or hobbies that allow you to see the good in other people. Being prosecutor or an investigator frequently exposes you to bad people doing bad things on a daily basis. It is easy to become jaded and lose objectivity. Overtime, this will eat away at you like running water to a boulder. For me, it is my commitment and service to my church that allows me to see the good in this world. It allows me to see people change. It allows me to see good people and not-so-good people do good things. It gives me a balance in my life. A few years ago I prosecuted a gentleman for drug possession and he was given a probated sentence. He struggled with his addiction during his probationary period and had to serve a few stints in jail as a result. Eventually, he started working with a small business that installs commercial playgrounds. As it turned out, the owner of that business attended the same church as me and started filling me in on his progress. Eventually, he started attending church with us. He has really turned his life around thanks to this couple and he even still comes to me to admit when the temptations to return to his addiction comes around again. He wants that accountability. I have seen his life changed and it gives me hope in others as well. I understand, religion is not everyone’s cup of tea, but we far too often ignore the spiritual side of humanity. So, if yoga or some other form of meditation works for you, go for it. In the process you will find even more people to support you emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and mentally. Remember, this is not a lone-wolf profession.


Figley, C.R. (1995). Compassion fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized. NY: Brunner/Mazel.

Hunt, T. (2018). Professionals’ perceptions of vicarious trauma from working with victims of sexual trauma [Doctoral dissertation, Walden University]. Retrieved from

National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) (2011). Secondary traumatic stress: A fact sheet for child-serving professionals. Retrieved from

Russell, A. (2010). Vicarious trauma in child sexual abuse prosecutors. Center Piece 2(6). Retrieved from

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