Empowering Survivors, Curing Stigma: Trauma-Informed Advocacy for Survivors Living with Mental Illness

This May marks the 69th anniversary of Mental Health Month in the United States. The purpose of Mental Health Month is to increase awareness of mental health issues and to empower individuals who live with mental health issues; to challenge stigma; and to help those who suffer heal emotional and psychological wounds.[1]

Sexual assault and intimate partner violence can have significant mental health consequences for survivors.[2] As attorneys and advocates who work with survivors, it is our responsibility to be aware of the signs of trauma in our clients, to ensure that our representation does not worsen the harm done to a client or create additional harms, and to zealously advocate on our clients’ behalf. Many, if not most, survivors who live with mental health, substance use, or trauma-related issues are fully capable of engaging in survivor-driven representation. These clients can make informed decisions about their case, and can understand, deliberate upon, and reach conclusions about matters affecting their own well-being.[3]

Wellness Cairns

There are myriad ways that advocates and attorneys can challenge the stigma surrounding mental illness and offer concrete assistance to survivors who have experienced trauma resulting from multiple victimizations. Attorneys for survivors who are dealing with mental health issues can assist clients by:

  • Recognizing that survivors may be unable to recall all the details of the abuse or violence;
  • Providing options and the time and space for survivors to make fully informed decisions;
  • Validating the survivor’s feelings throughout the process;
  • Being responsive to a survivor’s requests for information and support, even if she asks for the same information several times;
  • Partnering with survivors to identify alternative coping strategies if they are engaging in self-harming behaviors;
  • Finding supports for developing alternative or additional coping strategies;
  • Connecting survivors who are experiencing a mental health crisis with a trusted mental health referral/resource;
  • Offering support to survivors who are using alcohol and/or drugs by safety planning and strategizing to the greatest extent possible at the time (including assessing risks and developing strategies that mitigate the risks posed by alcohol and drug use) and encouraging them to contact you again;
  • Gaining an understanding of the ways in which a client’s unique challenges may impact her ability to engage in the advocacy process;
  • Tailoring interviewing and counseling approaches to meet the needs of and maximize the self-determination of each individual client;
  • Developing a basic understanding of trauma-related and mental health conditions that survivors may experience;
  • Being skilled in listening and asking questions to understand a survivor’s perspective and needs; and
  • Understanding what information and options to offer to meet those needs.[4]

Survivor-driven advocacy requires that attorneys tailor their advocacy approach to meet the unique needs of survivors. It is within the context of a respectful, survivor-driven relationship that lawyers can provide opportunities for survivors experiencing trauma and mental health challenges to access the resources they need and to exercise greater control over their own lives.


Janice Craft is one of two attorneys with the Project for Empowerment of Survivors (PES) at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. Prior to her work with the Action Alliance, Janice served as the statewide policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia and clerked for the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals of Virginia. Janice is a graduate of William and Mary Law School, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law. You can reach Janice and the rest of the PES team at legal@vsdvalliance.org.


[1] Mental Health America, http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/may (last visited May 4, 2018).

[2] See, e.g., the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health, http://www.nationalcenterdvtraumamh.org/ (last visited May 4, 2018).

[3] See, e.g., Comment 1 to Rule 1.14 of the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct, available at http://www.vsb.org/pro-guidelines/index.php/main/print_view (last visited May 4, 2018).

[4] See Seighman, Mary M., et al., “Representing Domestic Violence Survivors Who Are Experiencing Trauma and Other Mental Health Challenges: A Handbook for Attorneys” (2011), available at http://www.nationalcenterdvtraumamh.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/AttorneyHandbookMay282012.pdf (last visited May 4, 2018).

Meet the Action Alliance’s new Prevention Director, Kat Monusky!

The Action Alliance is excited to welcome Kat Monusky to the team as our new Prevention and Community Wellness Director!

Kat has been working as the Prevention Program Coordinator at WCSAP—the Washington State Sexual Assault Coalition–for 7 years, during which time she has changed the landscape and evolution of prevention in Washington State. In this role, one of Kat’s priorities has been to bring the voices of local programs to statewide and national processes, and to make the significant funding and programming shifts necessary to ensure that coalition prevention work is responsive to the needs of local programs.

Kat has dreamed up and managed a variety of new statewide prevention initiatives from start to finish, including a multi-year pilot project on child sexual abuse prevention to push local programs out of their comfort zones and toward best practices and a new statewide Prevention Mentor Program. She has managed Washington’s large-scale, statewide Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign for seven years, including the creation and distribution of materials, along with managing the WCSAP SAAM website and social media.

Kat and pups

In the realm of writing and publications, Kat has developed content for over 40 Prevention Tips, ‘special edition’ resources, and prevention pages of the WCSAP website. She has also been in charge of producing 11 volumes of WCSAP’s nationally-recognized “Partners in Social Change” (PISC) journal.

Kat’s connection to the work originated in Virginia. She was a survivor advocate while attending VCU as an undergraduate and in graduate school, and joined the Action Alliance Prevention Team as an intern in 2010. As Kat says, “My career began in working directly with survivors, and that experience keeps me grounded in the anti-violence and anti-oppression frameworks that guide my work.”

About her new position, Kat says, “I’m so grateful to have been able to learn from and grow with the amazing network of preventionists and advocates in Washington State. But I’m also so excited to return to Virginia and join the fantastic team at the Action Alliance! Looking forward to learning about the unique social change efforts that run through Virginia, and hopefully to meet many of you soon.”


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335

On an Unjust Justice System: Innocent Until Proven Poor

Our country’s system of cash bail doesn’t work like you were probably taught. Every year, millions of people are coerced into paying money bail after they’re arrested in order to remain free while their cases are processed. Even though these individuals are still innocent in the eyes of the law, they and their families or communities are forced to pay non-refundable ten percent deposits to for-profit bail bonds companies. Rather than helping to ensure that defendants return to court for future court hearings (a reminder phone call works just as well), the cash bail system fuels mass incarceration and disproportionately impacts Black and low-income communities. 

Oftentimes, young children are fed certain beliefs to give them a basic understanding of how the world works. They are told that doctors make them feel better when they are sick, that prison is where bad people go so they don’t harm others, that their teachers are always to be trusted, that the justice system rights wrongs and makes the world a more just place.

As we grow older, it is imperative that we question the beliefs we were taught and analyze them for ourselves to search for the truth – if any – within them. Today, I ask you to challenge your beliefs about the “justice” system and its accompanying money bail system.

How many people does this affect?

Here in the land of the free, there are 646,000 people locked up in more than 3,000 local jails – of these people, 70 percent have yet to be convicted of a crime and are legally presumed innocent. Who are they, you may ask, and why are they there? According to data from the non-profit, non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), fewer than 30 percent of those currently locked up in local jails were arrested for violent crimes. And the reason they are still there? It has a lot to do with the United States’ system of money bail.

Through the money bail system, defendants are required to pay a certain amount of money as a pledged guarantee that they will attend future court hearings. Defendants who are unable to come up with that money, however, can be incarcerated from the time of their arrests until their cases are resolved or dismissed in court – a process that can, sometimes, take up to 10 years. The Pretrial Justice Initiative found that most people detained pretrial will receive “dismissals, no jail time, or a jail sentence less than time served in pretrial detention.” It seems that the “constitutional principle of innocent until proven guilty only really applies to the well off.”

Bail amounts are often equivalent to a full year’s income

According to PPI’s research, which uses Bureau of Justice Statistics data, the median annual income for people in jail, prior to incarceration, was $15,109 – this is less than half (48 percent) of the median for people of similar ages who are not incarcerated. Since those in jail are drastically poorer than non-incarcerated individuals, it is oftentimes extremely difficult for them to pay the required bail amount. In fact, the nationwide median bail amount is almost equivalent to a full year’s income for the typical person unable to meet a bail bond.

Also important to note in these statistics is the fact that Black women had the lowest incomes prior to incarceration. This means that the money bail system especially harms Black women, as they are the least likely to be able to afford their bail amount. Many may have heard the story of Sandra Bland, a Black woman who died in custody in July 2015, after being unable to afford the $515 amount. Sadly, this story is not hers alone. In that same month, five additional Black women died in jails around the country waiting to post bail, the majority on minor shoplifting charges.

The money bail system further disadvantages people of color, as data presented by the Pretrial Justice Institute found that Hispanic men had a 19-percent higher bail than white men, while black men had bail amounts 35 percent higher than white men.

Cash bail often triggers housing, employment and custody crises

The bail system further exacerbates a system of poverty. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 71 percent of inmates were employed when they were arrested. As stated in the aforementioned article by Brave New Films, “there is no way to calculate how many of those people will lose their jobs because they can’t afford to bail out and will fail to come to work, or how many will lose their housing as a result of the downward spiral.” Additionally, people can also lose custody of their children during this jail time – thus leaving entire families more vulnerable to violence.

Huge profits for bail bonds corporations; a cycle of poverty for individuals

Like most instances of injustice, this has dire consequences not only on those directly affected, but on family members as well. One practice for families that cannot afford bail is to enter into financial agreements with bail-bonds corporations. A practice that is only present in the United States and the Philippines, these for-profit bail businesses require individuals to pay a non-refundable portion of the total bail amount to a bail-bonds company. Even if there’s no conviction, defendants and their families will never get that money back. Not only do these bail bonds “often leave families paying loan installments and fees even after a case is resolved,” but they can even result in property loss if a house or other asset was selected as collateral.

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Source: Prison Policy Initiative

Jurisdictions that limit or eliminate their use of money bail often have equally high – if not even higher – percentages of people showing up for their court dates.

Cash bail can/should be eliminated

Instead of utilizing the money bail system, which further disadvantages people of color, especially Black women, courts could adopt non-financial forms of release, such as release on own recognizance – in which a person is released “after promising, in writing, to appear in court for all upcoming proceedings.” Additionally, instead of arresting people, police could issue more citations – “orders to appear before a judge on a given date to defend against a stated charge” without having to serve jail time or be subjected to pay money bail. It is also worth noting that jurisdictions that limit or eliminate their use of money bail often have equally high – if not even higher – percentages of people showing up for their court dates.

You can help us TAKE ACTION

As we rethink our own beliefs about money bail, let us not forget those who are currently suffering the consequences of this unjust system. Currently, the Action Alliance is supporting Southerners on New Ground (SONG)’s Black Mamas Bail Out Action – a project to free as many Black women as possible (cis and trans) to bring them home to their families for Mother’s Day. Join us today in supporting this cause and reuniting families for Mother’s Day.

On May 10, the Action Alliance will host, “Getting Our People Free: What is Bail Reform and Why Do We Need It?”. This teach-in will be held 5pm-7pm at the Action Alliance office and is co-sponsored by the Richmond Chapter of Southerners on New Ground. Join us for community, conversation, snacks, and to learn more about how to end money bail.

Cover image source: https://www.injusticewatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/FullSizeRender-1170×889.jpg


Maryum Elnasseh is a second-year student at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum is an intern for the Real Story Internship. She hopes to use her voice as a tool to ignite social change.