Vicarious Trauma Series Provides Coping Assistance to Forensic Professionals

Grieving family members, unable to understand the need for autopsies when their loved ones obviously died in a fire. Parents and spouses wondering if terrorism or an accident caused a serious plane crash. And the seemingly unending quest to identify victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

All of those challenges – from the March 25, 1990 Happy Land Social Club fire and the Nov. 12, 2001 American Airlines Flight 587 crash, in addition to the 9/11 victims – faced members of the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office during the tenure of Dr. Thomas Brondolo as deputy commissioner. When Dr. Brondolo left that office, he began reflecting on the need for research and the development of resources to help coroners and medical examiners deal with the aftermath of such stressful events. The results of that research, conducted under a partnership between St. Johns University and Kent State University, were presented during an October webinar, “Handling Difficult and Disturbing Cases for Coroners and Medical Examiners,” presented as part of a National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Forensic Technology Center of Excellence (FTCoE) webinar series on experiencing and coping with exposure to vicarious trauma. Like all of the webinars in this series, an archival version of the event can be accessed here.

Police Line tape

According to the FTCoE website, forensic nurses, crime scene investigators, forensic practitioners, medicolegal death investigators and other professionals experience vicarious trauma through exposure to the aftermath of violent crime and to its victims. Often, these professionals present symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and may use unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse or other forms of self-medication. Also, the criminal justice culture’s stress on self-reliance often keeps these individuals from seeking the help they need. Some research efforts have taken place on coping with vicarious trauma for first responders, but fewer resources are available for forensic professionals. With this webinar series, the FTCoE seeks to explore common strategies and resources derived from existing research and offer guidance to forensic practitioners and the broader criminal justice community on how they can be leveraged. Events also address recommended methods of maintaining workforce resiliency.

Other webinars in the series include:

  • Digital and Multimedia Forensics: The Impact of Disturbing Media. Speaker: Dr. Kathryn Seigfried-Spellar.
  • The Vicarious Trauma Toolkit – an Evidence-Informed Resource for Organizations. Speakers: Dr. Beth E. Molnar and Karen Irene Kalergis, MA.
  • Psychological Survival in a Violent Career. Speaker: Dr. David Christiansen.
  • Psychological Survival in a Violent Career: Follow-up. Speaker: Dr. Christiansen.

Additional FTCoE Resources on vicarious trauma include an episode of Just Science, the center’s podcast series (Forensic Advancement: Just Psychological Resiliency) that includes an interview with Dr. Christiansen, and an older webinar titled “Health, Stress, and Wellness in Policing: Current Issues and Emergent Solutions.”

Additional FTCoE webinars on topics as varied as using Rapid DNA in disaster victim identification, providing assistance to victims of sexual assault and the latest firearm/toolmark research can be found here. Access to all events is free. Notifications about upcoming events are published in the FTCoE’s weekly electronic newsletter; subscribe here.

Article photo: Loren Rodgers/