SURVIVING PROSECUTOR BURNOUT
Earlier this week I watched a webinar training put on by the New Mexico Administrative Office of the District Attorneys on the topic of burnout as it pertains to prosecutors. Much of the message conveyed by the trainer, Erik Scramlin, really resonated with me and for that reason I am dedicating this edition of my blog to this topic.
Burnout is not unique to the prosecution profession or even to the legal profession, but having experienced it myself, I do know that it sneaks up slowly and impacts some of the most dedicated prosecutors for the very reason that they are so dedicated. In my case, I had been doing victim crimes exclusively for five years when I reached the apex of the burnout point. My entire case load had been felony crimes against children—child abuse and molestation—and homicides. I was completely dedicated and absorbed with handling these cases and seeking justice for as many victims as I could. I lived, ate, and breathed for this purpose. I quickly became known as the go-to person for law enforcement and other prosecutors who investigated and prosecuted these crimes. I was available 24/7 to anyone who needed help with these extremely difficult and emotionally draining cases. What I failed to realize at the time was the toll this dedication was taking on me both physically and emotionally, as well as the toll it was taking on my family. I truly felt and believed, as do most dedicated prosecutors, that it was my burden to carry the hopes and expectations of all of those victims on my shoulders and I did so willingly and eagerly without hesitation. But that weight eventually led to problems in my marriage, increased alcohol use and ultimately a very bad choice that could have ended my career. In January 2009, after returning from a disappointing jury trial where an offender was acquitted of abusing two children, I chose to relieve the stress and disappointment I felt of letting these two girls down by drinking and getting behind the wheel. I thank God every day that I did not hurt or kill anyone from my stupidity, but it was a wake-up call and caused me to reevaluate how I was dealing with the challenges of my career and my life.
Please understand that in no way am I making excuses for my actions that night. As a career prosecutor I believe everyone must be accountable and take responsibility for their actions. That is why I took responsibility, pled guilty, and accepted the punishment of the court. But I also knew that I wanted and needed to continue to work to help crime victims in some capacity. That is why I joined the Victims Rights Project of the DWI Resource Center in March 2009. This gave me a much needed break from the rigors of prosecution while still allowing me to pursue my passion of helping crime victims.
After two years, I returned to prosecution, joining the 13th District Attorney’s Office in 2011 where I have continued my career as a prosecutor, but much wiser and much more sensitive to the very real problem of burnout that leads many to leave the prosecution field, leads some prosecutors to make poor choices like DUI, broken marriages and tragically even suicide. With the strength of my faith and my family, I overcame that dark point in my career and in my life. I went to counseling and quit drinking. Eleven years later, my husband and I are still married. We will celebrate 33 years of marriage May 1st. I have become a Supreme Court appointed mentor for new attorneys whereby I share my experience and show them how to avoid burnout. I have become actively involved in New Mexico MADD, serving on the committee for the annual walk like MADD to end drunk and drugged driving. I have developed a strong working partnership with Rio Rancho Police Department, the very same agency that arrested me for DUI in 2009. As your District Attorney, I will recruit and train good, honest, ethical prosecutors and I will personally implement procedures to ensure that these attorneys have the knowledge, skills, resources and support that will keep them fighting the good fight for the citizens of our community without sacrificing physical and emotional health, family relationships and leading to poor choices that endanger the community. A wise person once said that it is our struggles that define us. How we handle them is what matters. Like I have always said, I am not perfect by any means. But I am honest, ethical and hard-working. I will continue to grow through what I go through and by so doing will use all of my experiences—good and bad—to keep our community safe.