Assessment and Control of Vicarious Trauma within Court Services Victoria

Assessment and Control of Vicarious Trauma within Court Services Victoria
By Diya Dey and Chris Morgan

Court Services Victoria (CSV) was created in 2014 with the goal of enhancing the independence of the judiciary from government. With over 1600 employees in more than 60 locations across Victoria, the prime function of CSV is to support the performance and efficient functioning of the judicial and administrative courts.

The courts increasingly view the provision of high quality services as central in supporting members of the community to have their day in court. As part of their role, Court staff are routinely exposed to traumatic imagery, case materials, testimony and interactions with distressed members of the public. Over time, exposure to these issues can take a toll on their wellbeing, resulting in vicarious trauma.

Recognising the potential impact that vicarious trauma can have on staff wellbeing, CSV engaged FBG to conduct an independent review to identify the levels and types of exposure to vicarious trauma across the different court jurisdictions, and propose a range of recommendations to effectively manage them. Nine months since engaging FBG, we caught up with Doug Galbraith – Manager Workplace Relations within the Human Resources Branch of Jurisdiction Services at CSV, to discuss how this project has evolved, the value it has generated, and the learnings to date.

Why was the review initiated?

Doug shared that the drivers for this project were based upon the desire for human resources to enhance the wellbeing of staff on an ongoing basis by providing services that are meaningful and make a tangible positive impact to their working environment. While CSV staff are highly committed to their work and have low Workcover and misconduct claims, their rates of sick-leave are quite high. The higher incidence of sick leave across the organisation pointed to underlying challenges that needed to be identified, measured, and addressed. In undertaking this project, CSV’s goal was to systematically build a first class support system for staff that could be used as an exemplar for the management of vicarious trauma in similar environments around Australia. To achieve this, CSV needed to first measure the problem, and confirm that vicarious trauma was in fact a problem. Then, they needed to better understand the options available to support staff to control vicarious trauma in their environment. Doug explained “we needed to better understand what we do currently, and what we need to do better across the employee lifecycle, from recruitment and induction, to supporting professional development, while also increasing the degree of alignment between the judiciary and support staff”. While CSV can’t control the distress associated with citizens having their day in court, they can control how they support court staff with tools and resources to be mindful and empathetic participants in the justice process.

What were the key highlights of this review?

Doug’s reflections highlighted some key learning from the project so far, the most notable being the powerful evidence base that the engagement process has generated. The engagement process with staff, consisting of surveys, focus groups, and 1-on-1 interviews, provided CSV with powerful evidence of staff exposure to vicarious trauma as well as its impacts and the ways used to manage it.  Staff felt their experiences were heard and understood and that CSV demonstrated their ongoing commitment to court staff welfare and wellbeing. The data and stories emerging from court staff have proven to be highly persuasive in raising the awareness and responsiveness of the judiciary to the wellbeing issues faced by court staff.

From a strategic perspective the evidence gathered has played a central role in shaping the business case for future investment in solutions. The review uncovered different support programs across different locations, each with varying degrees of efficacy. Under development is a systemic approach to providing support that will aim to match the right programs with the culture and needs of each jurisdiction throughout the employee lifecycle.

What do you see as the next steps?

CSV have now turned their attention to the next phase of the project - to develop an accurate picture of the preventative and responsive supports available to court staff to help manage the impacts of vicarious trauma. A key part of this process is to understand what’s in place and determine appropriate support options where gaps exist. The overarching goal is to develop high quality, pragmatic solutions that combine best practice with the articulated needs of court staff. The Project intends to harness the organisation's collective willingness to provide greater proactive support, with Doug concluding that “We’ve got to show leadership on this important topic”.


Of course this challenge is not confined solely to the courts; other organisations with a similar risk profile have an opportunity to take similar proactive steps to mitigate the risk of psychological injury and vicarious trauma.  CSV is leading the way by taking a consultative and systematic approach to measuring risk and developing support strategies.  CSV’s investment and commitment in this project positions them as leading best practice for managing vicarious trauma within the justice community and beyond.

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Guest Friday, 28 April 2017