ACLU-D.C.’s clients have been attacked by the police and military, suffered inhumane conditions at the D.C. Jail, and endured anti-LGBTQ harassment, among other civil rights and liberties violations. Telling their stories in court and in public often means that our brave clients and partners relive the worst experiences of their lives.

At ACLU-D.C., we believe that healing from harm is an integral part of justice. Real justice means that people are able to heal from the harm they’ve experienced and that systems change so that those harms are not repeated.

But much of our legal system is not set up to provide healing, and instead focuses on forms of punishment that can cause more harm. The Alliance for Safety and Justice found that by a 3 to 1 margin, crime survivors would prefer to hold the people who harmed them accountable through restorative options beyond prison. In fact, 77 percent of survivors of the most serious violent crimes said that prosecutors should focus on solving neighborhood problems and stopping repeat crimes through rehabilitation.

To move toward a more holistic sense of justice, we partnered with the Network for Victim Recovery of DC (NVRDC) to provide healing support to certain ACLU-D.C. clients and partners who have experienced traumatic violations of their civil rights and liberties. NVRDC is a healing equity organization that seeks to empower survivors of violence and crime to achieve what they call “survivor-defined justice.” NVRDC's team of trauma-informed staff works to support and empower clients to pursue the kind of healing that is important to them through advocacy, case management, therapeutic, and legal services.

Throughout 2023, NVRDC Therapeutic Services Manager Reesie Sims has provided certain clients and partners with emotional support and crisis therapy. Sims approaches trauma as “a deeply distressing, threatening, or dangerous experience that disturbs your sense of safety.” Sims explains that an event is not in and of itself traumatizing. Rather, trauma is defined by a person’s response to that event, and each person may respond differently.

Trauma often interferes with the person’s ability to function in a way that, as Sims says, “is normal for you.” This interruption happens because traumatic experiences can change the brain and cause the traumatic memory to get “stuck” at the forefront of the brain, explains Sims. The lasting effects of trauma are often physical because our bodies try to protect us from more harm by shutting down some functions and activating others.

Sims says the empowerment of choice is a key component of healing from trauma because survivors often experience deep helplessness and a lack of control. Emotional processing with Sims can help certain clients and partners regain their autonomy, reconnect to who they are, and reconcile worldviews that were challenged by their traumatic experiences.

Empowerment is often difficult to cultivate because there are so many systemic barriers to healing. “When you're concerned about making rent, or finding your next meal, or having groceries in the home, it can feel impossible to know where to start,” Sims says. “It can be challenging to try to heal past traumatic experiences when your traumas are compounding on top of each other. People might also have concerns about emotional comfort or safety and might not seek help because it’s still stigmatized in certain communities.” Even when people are ready to get help and know where to go, the services aren’t always available. “I’ve seen waitlists extend into double and sometimes triple digits,” recalls Sims, “and private practices that have openings are often too expensive for people to afford.”

We partnered with NVRDC to eliminate such barriers for certain clients and partners, as they work with us to change the systems that harmed them. We are proud to provide emotional processing support to those fighting for systemic change that can prevent people from being harmed in the future. And we hope that our partnership will promote healing as an integral component of justice in the District.